If Jeje Lalpekhlua had been walking in wonderland with the recognition he’d achieved for a fantastic football calendar year 2015-16, he’s flying through it now.
At the Times of India Sports Awards (TOISA) ceremony, held in Mumbai on Monday, 20th March, the 26 year-old Mohun Bagan and India national team forward was adjudged the Footballer of the Year, beating competition from compatriot and close rival Sunil Chhetri.
Starting with the South Asian Football Federation’s (SAFF) Championship, Lalpekhlua went on to become an I-League runner-up with Mohun Bagan, created goal-scoring records in the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) Cup and Federation Cup, with the Mariners emerging victorious in the latter. Under the tutelage of three coaches – Sanjoy Sen, Marco Materazzi, Stephen Constantine – he turned into a poacher, almost scoring goals at will .
Jeje’s enviable scoring record is a testament to the fact that he has managed to keep the basics right. The diminutive but strongly built forward thrives on his positional sense. In this regard, he is not a Chhetri-like player, who can drop deep to claim the ball and barge into the box by playing a quick one-two. His style is closer to that of Bhaichung Bhutia, whose sublime anticipation helped him reach the right place at the right time.
The Hnahthial-born attacker also acknowledged his strengths and stresses that he wants to become a great scorer rather than being a scorer of great goals. With striking problems plaguing the national team in the recent past, his seven goals in as many matches donning the national colours brought a lot of relief to the management and fans of the Blue Tigers.
After the ISL had ended this year, both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan were ready to break their banks to rope in the in-form striker. Though he decided to stay at Mohun Bagan, his astronomical wage reportedly made him the highest paid Indian player of the competition. While Jeje’s goal-scoring abilities were never really frowned upon, his ability to hold up play and spray passes to the flanks under pressure has added a very important dimension to his game-play.
Lalpekhlua has already matched his goal scoring tally from last season in the domestic top tier, though he had an astonisinghly underwhelming season with his ISL team. Nonetheless, with his immense ability and now potential fulfilment, one can expect him to fire on all cylinders soon.