Chettri, Jeje & More - Top 5 Performers From India’s SAFF Cup Win
India’s victory at SAFF was no miracle, it was due to the hard work of these players.
In the second decade of the 21st century, a new rivalry has developed in South Asian football. India’s hegemony in this region is being seriously challenged by Afghanistan. On Sunday, the two teams faced off in the third straight final of the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Cup. In 2011, India had triumphed 4-0 in Delhi but two years later in Kathmandu Afghanistan prevailed 2-0. The year 2016 started on a bright note for the Blue Tigers. India rallied from being one goal down to win 2-1 in front of their vociferous supporters in Thiruvananthapuram.
This could be considered India’s best win in the SAFF Cup as they started the final as underdogs against a higher-ranked Afghanistan. India had several star players like Robin Singh, Sandesh Jhingan and Cavion Lobo missing due to injury.
So who are the five players who made the difference and enabled a depleted Indian squad win the 10th SAFF Cup:
1. Jeje Lalpekhlua
He is the man with the Midas touch as he has won three major titles on the trot. On 31 May 2015 he helped his club side Mohun Bagan win the Hero I-League title. Then on 20 December 2015, he excelled as his franchise Chennaiyan FC rallied to overcome FC Goa and win the 2nd Hero Indian Super League (ISL).
In the recent SAFF Cup he scored vital goals, two against Maldives in the semi-final and an exquisite equaliser in the final by flicking the ball past Afghan goalkeeper Ovays Azizi. Jeje is now the first player since the retired Baichung Bhutia to win three SAFF Cup finals in 2009, 2011 and now 2015-16. His game has matured and he is now a complete striker.
After Robin’s injury he took over the role of being the target man and holding up the ball. Besides, he excelled as a roving forward, was always in space to receive a pass and combined well with other forwards. His composure whilst scoring goals is exemplary.
2. Sunil Chhetri
Captain Marvellous. He used his years of experience to guide the young Indian squad in the tournament and scored an opportunistic match winner in the final against Afghanistan. Sensing hesitation between the Afghan central defenders, in clearing a long cross field pass, Chhetri darted into space, snatched the ball and calmly struck it past an advancing goalkeeper Azizi. He has now become a complete footballer and is no longer just a fox in the box striker.
The Indian skipper often starts a match on the left side of midfield, so that with this work rate and passing skills he can control India’s attack. At times to strengthen the attack he moves to the centre also and occasionally drifts to the right. Playing on the flanks has helped develop his defensive game as well. With age has come maturity, and the constant shifting of positions does not upset him anymore.
He was India’s top-scorer in 2015 with six goals and has started the New Year with a bang. He has now scored 13 goals overall in the SAFF Cup and is India’s all time top-scorer in this regional competition.
3. Rowlin Borges
The find of the tournament. This long-legged box-to-box midfielder is a fan of Real Madrid and their German World Cup winning midfielder Toni Kroos. He played a major role in the final disrupting Afghanistan’s rhythm in midfield with his timely tackles and interceptions. His positional sense in all the matches was excellent and he helped out in both defence and attack.
When India was trailing 0-1 against Nepal in a group A league encounter, he equalised with a blistering right footer capitalising on hesitation in the Nepalese defence. He has a phlegmatic temperament and like another legendary Goan midfielder Climax Lawrence is an excellent distributor of the ball. Some of his through balls and cross field passes in the tournament were a treat to watch.
It is surprising that he was not picked up by any of the eight ISL franchises in the recent ISL. Credit to national coach Stephen Constantine for realising his potential and giving him an opportunity.
4. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu
The 6 ft 4 inch tall goalkeeper has established himself as India’s No. 1 in the World Cup qualifiers in 2015 and again in the recent 10th SAFF Cup. His calm temperament, excellent gripping of the ball, whilst dealing with crosses and corner kicks and timely advances to narrow the angle has made him a reliable goalkeeper.
Sandhu’s stint with the Norwegian first division club Stabek FC has helped him mature as a goalkeeper. His flexibility and positional play has improved a lot and he can be India’s No. 1 custodian for years to come.
He started his career at the St. Stephens school academy in Chandigarh just six years ago and has improved by leaps and bounds. Once error prone and jittery, the stint in Norway has helped him mature as a goalkeeper.
5. Narayan Das
The 22-year-old from Jharkhand has overcome adversity (fractured ankle during the first ISL) to become India’s most reliable wing back. He has modelled his game on that of Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos and loves to overlap. His crosses from the flanks were useful and he gave India width in attack.
Earlier in his career he was better going forward but now excels in defence as well. Coach Constantine has improved his fitness, positional sense and timing of his tackles. In the SAFF Cup he made several timely interceptions and prevented attacks from the right flanks by India’s opponents. Above all, he has a phlegmatic temperament and is very reliable.
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