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Sunil Chhetri may be down, but he’s definitely not out

Picture this: Bengaluru FC have huffed and puffed in a Hero Indian Super League encounter against a fellow title rival. The Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru is packed to the rafters and is egging their team to script another chapter in the Blues’ folklore.

They begin the game on a positive note but are quickly pegged back. As the minutes tick by, Bengaluru FC start clinging on and have to depend on heroic defending to keep their opponents at bay.

In the offensive third, they have tried everything at their disposal but each of their attempts has been thwarted, and as the game meanders into the dying embers, a couple of players and thousands at the stadium look up to the heavens.

During this sequence, when most players are feeling the rigours of a grueling encounter, a particular individual on Bengaluru FC’s left flank begins encouraging those around him.

He starts telling them that everything will be alright and that they have done everything they could’ve done. Under a deep breath, he quietly mutters that he has everything worked out. And, then, just like he had promised, everything becomes alright.

The forward runs down the left flank, tempts fate with his irresistible skill and then produces a moment of absolute magic – a moment that just doesn’t floor the opposition but also makes those at the ground query if they are witnessing greatness.

Thousands in the stands break into a celebration. This individual, by the way, is also their captain and happens to be one of the greatest Indian footballers to have ever stepped onto the field.

The speakers blare out celebratory music and a massive banner is unfurled – a banner that has just five words engraved on it – Sunil Chhetri. Captain. Leader. Legend.

For much of Bengaluru FC’s stint in the Hero ISL, this has been the narrative that has transpired. There have been occasions when they haven’t been firing on all cylinders. But there has rarely been an instance when Chhetri hasn’t lived up to his billing.

Is Chhetri a misfit in Pezzaiuoli’s system?

His reputation still remains unparalleled but the goals, rather unfortunately for the Blues’ faithful, have dried up this season. He has also been reduced to a bit-part role this season, meaning that people have begun questioning if Chhetri has indeed run his race.

Former teammates Darren Caldeira (for India) and Erik Paartalu, though, hinted that that might not entirely explain the dip in form, suggesting that a number of factors have led to this situation.

“It isn’t a physical issue. He still runs up and down the flanks. He doesn’t have the legs like he used to. He does tire at some point in the second half. He started playing this position in 2013 which is a long time back. You would rather have him in the opposition half where he is a lot more dangerous. He is thinking about defending a lot so he has not been able to make an impact going forward,” Caldeira said.

“The coach wants to play a very high-intensity, high-press style. The way they are building up, they don’t really look to find Sunil in good spaces and with time. Historically, we have looked to Sunil over the top. I don’t think it is a physical issue or a mental block. The way BFC are playing is not suiting Sunil playing out wide on the left. He probably is struggling because the team is not finding him quickly enough,” Paartalu commented.

Central role

The lack of goals have also ignited another debate – a debate around whether Chhetri is best used as a left winger in the current scenario or if there is a different position that utilizes his abilities better.

“Right now, I feel his best position is the number 10 behind the striker. Chhetri is clever, he can play between the lines and he will be a really good player if he can play off Cleiton or Ibara. That should be his preferred position now. They [BFC] don’t have that creative spark and that is where Chhetri can be threatening,” Caldeira added.

Moreover, there could be a chance for Chhetri to operate as an attacking midfielder against Mumbai City FC, with Jayesh Rane ruled out and Iman Basafa not really seeming in Marco Pezzaiuoli’s plans this season.

Paartalu, meanwhile, felt that Chhetri’s best position was probably as a false nine or as someone who predominantly functioned through the middle.

“I think Sunil’s best position would be a false nine. He needs to play through the middle so that he can get on the end of things. He is a good finisher, he makes good runs and maybe he needs to adapt to what the team needs. I think Sunil is best suited centrally,” the former Bengaluru FC midfielder quipped.

Write him off at your own peril

Irrespective of where you stand, with respect to this debate, there is no denying that Chhetri has, owing to the high standards he has set in the past, flattered to deceive in 2021-22.

The more important bit, at this point of time, is whether Chhetri can regain the confidence that has been synonymous with him and if he can make the net bulge again.

Under ordinary circumstances, you wouldn’t want to make a case for someone who has missed a couple of penalties and has spurned gilt-edged opportunities, and has, of course, been consigned to the bench more often than not in recent matches.

But this conversation revolves around Chhetri – a player who hasn’t just scored goals for fun but has also defined an entire generation of Indian footballers.

“He is going through a bad patch. He has set the standards really high. I don’t think there has ever been a time in his career when he hasn’t scored for so long. I remember in 2013-14, he went around 4-5 games without scoring and still ended up being the joint highest scorer in the league. I am pretty confident if he can get the first goal, he will definitely get a few more goals,” Caldeira elaborated.

“100% he can turn it around. How can we doubt this guy. He has proven people wrong and he has done it so many times. I am sure he is working very hard to put things right. There is still half a season left and at some point, Sunil Chhetri will have a big say in some of these games,” Paartalu opined.

Thus, there is enough evidence that the gun should perhaps not be jumped on Chhetri’s dwindling returns. He might not be getting any younger but it is just as ludicrous to bet against him turning things around in a trice.

For years, he has been one of the primary reasons why Bengaluru FC have enjoyed success in the Hero ISL. He has, more often than not, been the difference maker and has answered the prayers of the Blues faithful.

Now, things have become a little rockier. That, though, doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t be alright – like it has been all these years. Sunil Chhetri may be down at the moment but he is most certainly not out for the count.

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