Before the second season of ISL started, the buzzwords were 'bigger and better'. There were more sponsors, more money was pumped in and younger marquee players were signed. But the biggest draw, for fans of Indian football, was arguably the signing of Sunil Chhetri from the I-League.
After four appearances in the league, Chhetri has six goals to his name, making him the joint top scorer in the league. Against NorthEast United FC on Wednesday, he became the first ever Indian player to score a hat-trick in the ISL, as he powered his team to its third straight win and into second place in the points table behind Pune City.
This run of form for Chhetri, however, is something of a happy accident. Chhetri was anonymous in his first game against Chennaiyin FC where he spent most of his time on the right flank before switching to the left to no great effect.
Chhetri predominantly plays down the left for his I-League club Bengaluru FC, where he also combines with Lalchhuanmawia Fanai, Mumbai City's consistently impressive left back. Mumbai's assistant coach Oscar Bruzon is well aware of that but Sony Norde's form, and his preference to play out wide, forced Mumbai's hand in moving Chhteri to the middle.
"Our initial idea was, I am not going to lie, to play Chhetri on the left," Bruzon said after a third home win on the trot. "But we are finding that we have Sony Norde who wants to play on the left and enjoys facing the goal. But with Sunil, we find that he is a good at playing forward, tracking back, he is good at scoring, at creating chances and also helping our midfielders. So I think that way we have found a very good position for Sunil."
It helps that Chettri wants to play as a centre-forward. "You asked me my favourite position, it's No 10,” he told Firstpost last week.
It was not just his goals that stood out either. Chhetri put on a brilliant all-round perfomance against the Highlanders in a 5-1 win. His hat-trick, especially the 'Panenka' penalty to start the night, will grab the headlines and rightly so, but Chhetri also won headers from goalkicks, held up play well, and combined brilliantly with Subash Singham on the right and Sony Norde on the left.
In fact, he could have scored more than just three goals. He rattled the crossbar once with a rasping shot from outside the box and missed two more gilt-edged chances - one a great save by the goalkeeper and the other a header that flew just wide.
In all he had six shots on goal, four on target and the match ball to go with it at the end of the night.
Even his low-point of the night - a horribly mistimed overhead kick from inside the box - ended up as a handball and penalty for Mumbai, which he converted with aplomb to complete the hat-trick.
When Firspost asked Bruzon for the reason behind moving Chhetri to the middle, he had this to say:
"In the beginning, he was trying to take a lot of responsibilities at the front. In that moment, when we were trying to play him on the left and on the right and the combination was not working. Then we put Sunil in the bridge between the midfield and the attacking line. And now Sunil is completely exceeding our expectations. Sunil has played a great game again."
Chettri stressed the importance of three points over his three goals and the need to forget this win, and focus on the next game against Atletico de Kolkata. But there’s no doubt that it is Chhetri who has sparked Mumbai City's tournament to life and the fans, at least, will savour this performance for some time to come.
Updated Date: Oct 29, 2015 17:59:30 IST