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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

ISL: With a mixture of grace and trickery, Sahal Abdul Samad comes of age

Tipped to be the next big thing in Indian football, the UAE-born midfielder is, at last, justifying his potential with a string of match-winning performances for Kerala Blasters.

Written by Shahid Judge | Mumbai |
Updated: December 28, 2021 12:08:24 am
Goa: Jerry Lalrinzuala of Chennaiyin FC and Sahal Abdul Samad of Kerala Blasters FC in action during their ISL match at the Tilak Maidan Stadium in Goa (Source: PTI)

The run from midfield was not in a straight line. But then again, that’s how the cleverer players go about their off-the-ball running.

Sahal Abdul Samad was not the centre of attention in the eye of the Jamshedpur FC defence, but he was giving his marker on the left-flank all sorts of problems. As Alvaro Vazquez collected the ball for the Kerala Blasters in the centre circle and started marching goal-wards, Sahal started to make his own run on the right flank. He cut in – with pace – then moved deeper to the wing, and went more central. Then again to the edge of the pitch. Vazquez had the two centre backs and cover from midfield chasing after him, but Sahal’s off-the-ball seemingly directionless run was throwing his marker off.

Finally, just as Vazquez was to pull the trigger from distance, Sahal cut inside again and sprinted straight into the box where he met the rebounded shot unopposed and slotted home his fourth goal of the Indian Super League campaign. It earned the Blasters a draw, but made Sahal only the second Indian after – who else – Sunil Chhetri to score in three consecutive ISL matches.

Slowly, you can expect the comparisons to the Indian great to re-emerge again. And once they do, this time, at least there is a little more substance to the argument.

Chhetri comparisons

For the past few seasons, Sahal had been compared to Chhetri – who at 37 is still the only shining star in the Indian unit. He was the most frequent answer to the ‘who after Chhetri’ question as well – an opinion shared by former skipper Bhaichung Bhutia as well.

And you could tell why.

He’s comfortable with the ball at his feet, dribbles with a mixture of grace and trickery, crafts passes and through-balls from the unlikeliest of positions. And then there’s the speed and flair that instantly drew comparisons to Chhetri.

And the veteran too asserted the youngster is an exciting prospect to watch.

“If I had to pick one midfielder that I really hope does well, it is Sahal. If that guy understands the kind of potential he has, maintains his body and puts his head on his shoulders, he is an extremely gifted talent. He is someone who really excites me,” Chhetri had said at a press conference in 2019.

The noise and excitement around this 24-year-old from Kerala had diminished these past few seasons since his breakout campaign in the 2018-19 season. Now there are hopes that he’s finally come of age and started to show the potential Chhetri had talked about.

Blasters and Sahal’s rise

The Kerala team started the season with a 4-2 loss to ATK Mohun Bagan. Sahal did score a spectacular goal in that match – his second ISL goal ever. And then he slipped into a shell and the Blasters’ put on a series of lacklustre – although unbeaten – performances.

That changed when they met Mumbai City on December 19. Sahal opened the scoring in a 3-0 romp with a thunderous strike from close range. He scored again, cutting inside from the right flank, in the next game against Chennayin FC. And then there was the finish on Sunday against Jamshedpur FC.

Suddenly, after a slow start, the Blasters are in the third spot on the ISL table. And it’s no surprise that the team’s upswing has coincided with their wunderkind.

“(Sahal) is making much better runs, whether it is coming inside from a wide area or tucking in a little bit more when the ball is on the other side,” analyst Paul Masefield told the ISL website. “His runs all round have contributed to him stepping up his levels this season. Now he just needs to combine the whole lot together to get the final end product correct. And, then, that is the Sahal we all know.”

Football dream in India

Born and raised in Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates, Sahal spent most of his childhood playing seven-a-side football in Oman. He later decided to shift to India to pursue a college degree, and a career in football. He excelled at the university level, playing the sevens format all throughout (perhaps how he developed those close-ball skills). His performances earned him a callup to Kerela’s Santosh Trophy squad in 2016-17, and the attention of the Blasters’ scouts – remarkably, the ISL was his first-ever tryst with professional football.

He was awarded the league’s and the AIFF’s Emerging Player Award in 2018-19, but as Chhetri got older, greater things were expected from the youngster.

By no means has he crossed the bar the veteran forward has raised so many times. But his recent run of form has shown that he’s begun the climb.

There was also a symbolic moment the pair shared during the SAFF Cup final against Nepal in October. Chhetri was to be subbed out and Sahal was brought on in place of him in the 86th minute of play.

Five minutes later, he latched onto a ball on the left, skipped through a web of three defenders with a fourth closing in. And then smartly struck home over the rushing goalkeeper for his first-ever goal in India colours.

He’s still young and yet to reach his peak, but Sahal has started to shine the way he’s been touted to.

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