Back to Base: Why the loan stint with Churchill Brothers will be Sunil Chhetri's best chance to win his first I-League title

In a not so surprising move, Sunil Chhetri has joined Churchill on loan following a disappointing stint in Portugal and this might be his best shot at a first I-League title..
By Kaustav Bera

With much fanfare it was announced that Sunil Chhetri would follow the path of his predecessor, Bhaichung Bhutia from the Indian national team to ply his trade abroad having joined Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise Sporting Kansas City. However, having failed to impress the coaches enough to even warrant a solitary appearance in a competitive fixture, the Sikkimese Sniper had to return to his roots, his dream of playing in the big leagues squashed.

Sunil Chhetri emulating his idol, Bhaichung Bhutia, but with limited success

After decent stints at Prayag United and Mohun Bagan in the I-League, albeit both unsuccessful trophy-wise, Chhetri had a second chance at living his dream when in a widely publicized move it was announced that he had joined Portugese giants, Sporting Lisbon. As details began to trickle in, the euphoria gradually died down when it was revealed that he would be the joining the 'B' team which played in the Portuguese second division.

However optimism was high, as the move meant that Sunil had the opportunity to prove himself and break into the first team. However, after just 10 minutes of playing time with the reserve team over the course of three appearances, that distant dream has faded. Even his chances of playing for the reserve side were miniscule as the B team were doing ever so well, sitting 2nd in their league.

How much will Sunil Chhetri bring home from his Sporting Libon 'B' stint?

Thus, it was a smart move by Chhetri and his agent to secure a loan back to India especially keeping his aspirations with the national team in mind. He cut an isolated figure up front during the last friendly against Palestine owing to the lack of game time he has had in Portugal. With an incredible strike rate on the international stage, which reads as 35 goals in 62 appearances, it was high time the spritely Indian striker decided to play regularly if he wanted national team coach Wim Koevermans to pick him on current form.

In spite of being 28 years old and featuring in the Indian football scene for a good 11 years now, there is a gaping hole when it comes to his CV. Chhetri has never won a national trophy for any of the numerous top-flight Indian clubs he has turned out for. While that may not have been down to his individual performances as such given that he did shine for his country during that period and picked up the Best Player in India award twice in 2007 and 2011, the fact remains that he has not tasted success at club level, even in his own country.

Churchill Brothers, under the astute leadership of Subhash Bhowmick are flying high in the I-League, sitting pretty in second place, trailing East Bengal by a solitary point and with two games in hand as well. Thus, a move to the championship contenders will not only give him much needed match time but will most probably give him that league title that has consistently eluded him in the past. It is clearly no coincidence that Bhowmick was managing East Bengal in the 2008-09 season, when Chhetri had a disappointing stint with the club that could only finish sixth that season.

Chhetri will be re-united with his former mentor, Subhash Bhowmick

What this move also means is that the diminutive dynamo will get to prove his goal scoring prowess, especially in a league dominated by foreign strikers and also in one suited to his abilities as he has been out of his depth in Portugal. The calculated move comes at the right time for both parties. While Churchill have lost the services of Lebanese hitman Akram Moghrabi, Chhetri's inclusion in the first team will be almost a certainty. He would form a part of an attacking trident along with Henri Antchouet and Bineesh Balan even though Churchill have also secured the services of Afghanistan skipper, Balal Arezou.

With the I-League regulations dictating that a team can have only three foreigners on the field at the same time, the inclusion of defender Lamine Tamba from Senegal and a sure starter in Beto, either Henri or Balal will be picked along with Chhetri to lead the line.

The move ensures that Chhetri remains within sight of Koevermans and the national team scouts. Had he stayed in Portugal for another six months with little to no time on the pitch, there was every possibility that he would have been dropped out of contention for the squad that is due to feature in the AFC Challenge Qualifiers.

In the process, if Chhetri manages to plug that one massive deficiency in his playing career by helping his former manager reclaim the I-League with a new team, then it will be another feather in the cap for the Indian international.

Follow Kaustav Bera on 

Do you think Sunil Chhetri will help Churchill Brothers SC to win the I-League this time? Let us know YOUR thoughts...

How do you stay up to date with football when on the move? With – your best source for mobile coverage of the beautiful game.