We are into Sunil Chhetri time

Sunil Chhetri, India’s evergreen goalscorer is now 37. The forward, who has swayed many games single-handedly in favour of the Blue Tigers, finds himself in the twilight of his career. The laws of nature make it inevitable.

The question of who after Sunil Chhetri has been hanging over Indian football like a sword. There are no easy answers to this. There can’t be because can there ever be another Sunil Chhetri?

Read: I am enjoying my football, can't say when I'll retire, says India captain Sunil Chhetri ahead of AFC Asian Cup qualifiers

Liston Colaco, Manvir Singh, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Rahim Ali, Ishan Pandita and few more names have been thrown into the mix to be man to take the baton forward from India’s all-time leading goalscorer, but to be fair to these players, these are massive boots to be filled. There are big reasons to believe in these young stars as these players have proven their worth in the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) for their clubs. But expecting these promising forwards to replace Chhetri all by themselves would be doing great disservice to their potential.

The gap that would be left by his eventual departure is unlikely to be filled with one single player. It would need a new system, a new route to the goal, probably a new attack. The budding talent in the Hero ISL provides plenty of optimism for that to eventually happen but the onus can’t be on one individual.

The reason is simple. Chhetri is special, he is unique, what he has achieved till date is far beyond normal. He has been banging in the goals for fun for years, With 80 international goals to his name, he has catapulted himself among the very greats of the game.

Be it a brace against Thailand in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, or the solo goal against Krgyzstan in the qualifiers. His hat-trick against Tajikistan in the AFC Challenge Cup back in 2008 and even his goals in defeat in the AFC Asian Cup 2011. There are numerous occasions like one as recently as the 2021 SAFF Championship where he was the top goalscorer with five goals, Chhetri has kept on producing the goods for India when it needed the most.

"As a player, I will keep working hard for my place in the same manner as when I was 19 when I first came into the team and was fighting for my place with the likes of Bhaichung (Bhutia) bhai. It is the same now. When you are playing for the national team, you have to fight for your place,” Chhetri said in an exlcusive interview to indiansuperleague.com

It’s easy to see how his youthful zest helps him defy his age and deliver a performance like a youngster at the peak of his powers. He may be 37 but that just feels like a number.

The Blue Tigers on Wednesday face one of their most crucial matches probably since their last match in the AFC Asian Cup back in 2019. Igor Stimac’s side have three games to qualify for the Asian Cup again. There is no margin for error.

India are favourites in a group comprising of Hong Kong, Afghanistan, and Cambodia especially with matches being played at the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata but with the stakes being so high, there is always pressure.

It feels an occasion so tailormade for Chhetri to dominate. A familiar name across supporters, his name is always expected to be the first one on the scoresheet. It feels we are entering Chhetri time again.

With the current Indian team full of budding talent from the Hero ISL, a change of guard might be in the offing in Indian football, but till then let’s just sit back and enjoy India’s inevitable matchwinner perform his magic like only he can.

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