Eugeneson Lyngdoh stood over the ball, but it was a mere formality. Jeje Lalpekhlua and Jackichand Singh too hovered nearby. But they all knew that the free kick was only for Sunil Chhetri to take. On cue, walked up the 32-year-old himself, and the path steadily cleared up. Chhetri measured his strides. He made up his mind – over the wall, and just inside the near post. He casually covered the already short run-up and struck the ball with a sweet sounding thump. Over the Puerto Rican wall it went. Curling towards the near post. Curling enough. Curling a bit too much. It hit the post.
Most had switched off, almost disheartened. But Narayan Das didn’t. The defender unleashed a strike that wasn’t as meticulous as the one Chhetri had fashioned moments ago. But the left footed effort was enough to creep into the goal on the far side. India had their equaliser.
But the country’s record goal-scorer was not to be denied. Seven minutes later, the same drill followed with the same star cast. Lyngdoh, Jeje, Jackichand all stepped aside. Again from just outside the box, but more towards the right side of the pitch, Chhetri measured his minute run-up, and picked his target. He didn’t give his shot much flight to loop over the wall. The effort didn’t need it. There was not much curl this time around either. The attacker had found that tiny spot between the wall and far post. Again he hit the post, but the ball snuck in.
For the national team ranked 152nd in the world, playing the higher placed Caribbean outfit threatened to be a daunting task. In fact, the visitors who are ranked 38 places above India took the lead in the seventh minute through a Manolo Sanchez penalty. There on it was still a Puerto Rican show. The islanders maintained possession at ease, passing the ball around and making the Indians work.
Only Chhetri stood as a constant figure of calm in the team currently going through a transitional phase during, the first 15 minutes. After the equaliser, the Indian stalwart’s poise had rubbed off on his colleagues. All of a sudden there was more composed passing from the hosts, and the visitors were made to run hard for the ball. Chhetri’s stationing just behind the striker kept the left flank open for the speedy Jackichand to occupy, and more than once the winger made sharp interceptions or outpaced his marking defenders.
The momentum had more than shifted towards the hosts. At the 33rd minute, right-back Pritam Kotal spotted a vacant Chhetri inside the box and delivered an inch perfect cross to his senior. The crowd watched, poised for another goal as India’s number 11 rose gracefully to meet the ball. But he didn’t aim it towards goal. Chhetri merely lopped his header forward into the path of Jeje, who simply had to nod home past the helpless Johny Santana in the Puerto Rican goal. 3-1 to India.
Just a day ago, head coach Stephen Constantine announced that Gurpreet Singh Sandhu will skipper the side for the game. It was a move that suggested a hint towards the Indian team looking toward the future. Especially since the team is currently experiencing a transitional phase. Yet on the night, when the young players displayed a hint of panic, it was the Chhetri, from the old guard, who was relied on to restore order. “I keep joking around with him that his time is up. But he’s not having it. He’s keeping himself fit, and he’s working hard all the time. He is the talisman of the team,” asserted Constantine after the game.
Jackichand too eventually got onto the score sheet in the 57th minute, when he sprinted to the right post to tap in Lyngdoh’s misfired header at goal. Along with Bikash Jairu, Jackichand helped India dominate the flanks, while Lyngdoh and the powerful Pronay Halder started to boss the midfield.
Sandhu too made some impressive saves. Yet apart from the monstrous goal-kicks that never failed to bring out the ‘oohhh’s’ and ‘awwww’s’ from the audience, the 6-foot-5 goalkeeper impressed with his positional play, often intercepting crosses with ease. But the day belonged to Chhetri. He saw his team fall down by a goal in the seventh minute. Stepped up, and then delivered the team out of trouble. Yet his day wasn’t to last the entire 90 minutes. After 77 minutes on the clock, the fourth official’s board flashed the number 11. The crowd rose in unison. But that wasn’t enough. For the player whose name had been called out several times during the course of the match, lung-busting roars and palm-bruising claps were in order.