Jeje magic back? Why the Mizo sniper is crucial for the Blue Tigers
215 days! That's how long Jeje Lalpekhlua took to break his goal drought. He was brought on as a late substitute during India’s first AFC Asian Cup 2019 match against Thailand on January 6 and within minutes of his introduction, the Mizoram-born striker produced a moment of magic, picking up the ball right at the edge of the box before toe-poking it into the net. The nonchalance and the presence of mind which Jeje displayed in executing the goal made it all the more special. You wouldn’t expect a striker bereft of confidence to pull a rabbit out of the hat like that, especially on one of the grandest stages like the Asian Cup. But Jeje is no ordinary striker. He has perfected the art of making his presence felt when his side needs him the most.
The goal also brought his long barren run to an end and marked his first goal in over 11 hours of football. Jeje scored his last goal against Kenya in the Hero Intercontinental Cup on June 4, 2018. The striker is yet to score for Chennaiyin FC in Hero Indian Super League 2018-19.
The impact of the goal was evident in the match against UAE. With India chasing the match, the 28-year-old was brought on in the second-half and almost made an immediate impact again with an intelligent effort which was just centimetres away from bringing the Blue Tigers even. Despite India not scoring, Jeje looked lively throughout his time on the field and seemed reinvigorated. It's still early days, but the signs are definitely encouraging for both the Blue Tigers and Chennaiyin. Jeje returning to form will give them back one of the deadliest marksmen in the country.
An alternate option
Like many other players, the Chennaiyin FC striker will undoubtedly take huge confidence from the welcome goal against Thailand. While head coach Stephen Constantine might still prefer to stick with the duo of Sunil Chhetri and Ashique Kuruniyan up front, his services from the bench could come in handy as India prepare to go further in the competition. A surge in form could also give Constantine the opportunity to vary his attacking line-up, should the need arise.
Numbers speak for themselves
Despite all the conjecture about Jeje’s loss of form before the AFC Asian Cup 2019 started, Constantine opted to keep faith in the Mizo sniper and there's a good reason why. Since making his debut in 2011, Jeje has firmly established himself as a pivotal player in the squad along with the likes of Chhetri, Sandesh Jhingan and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. On the club front, Jeje stands as one of the Hero ISL’s most prolific goal scorers and has two titles with Chennaiyin FC in his list of honours. His record for the national team is also something to be admired with 23 goals from 54 appearances.
Taking over the mantle
A large part of Jeje’s heroics with the national team has been down to the dynamic partnership he has enjoyed over the years with Chhetri. The pair has often worked together to devastating effect, most notably during India’s AFC Asian Cup qualifier against the Kyrgyz Republic as well as the Hero Intercontinental Cup in 2018. Chhetri is undoubtedly India’s poster boy, but once the legend ultimately decides to call it a day, the onus will fall on Jeje to shoulder the striking responsibilities up front. Whether he can fill the very big shoes remains to be seen, but the Mizo sniper’s presence will undoubtedly be vital to the Blue Tigers’ progress in the next few years.