Sunil Chhetri has been one of the most consistent performer for the Indian national team for a long time. But, India have lacked another proper goalscorer who has scored consistently and eased India's dependence on Chhetri.
The experienced star has contributed goals galore for India and even at his not-so-young age of 34, he has rarely missed matches. The likes of Jeje Lalpekhlua and Balwant Singh have all stepped up but have not been leading the team independently.
The last time India played a game without Chhetri in the lineup, excluding the games against SAFF nations, was when they faced Jordan in a friendly before the 2019 Asian Cup. The injured striker was forced to sit out the game in November 2018 and his team lost the tie 1-2. It must be noted that India had missed several frontline players owing to flight and logistics isseus.
Before that, the game Chhetri missed was the final group match of the Asian Cup qualification in March 2018. The 34-year-old was suspended for the away game as he had picked up two yellow cards in the group stage and the game was lost 1-2 against Kyrgyz Republic, with the team coming in for heavy criticism from the supporters for a lacklustre performance.
While Chhetri's contribution for India is praise-worthy, India needs to find a way to win games without the 34-year-old leading the line. Newly-appointed head coach Igor Stimac has his task cut out.
India lost to a superior team in Curacao in Stimac's first game in charge, which was the 2019 King's Cup opener. He rotated his squad heavily for the second game, so as to take a look at and utilize his full squad. And in opting to do so, he had to do something that he would not have done had India won the first game and progressed into the final of the tourney - he dropped Sunil Chhetri.
The youthful exuberance of the heavily-rotated team, playing under a new coach trying to implement his style of play, has given us just enough hope that maybe, India can still win games without Chhetri. And they did - India won their first game in more than a year against a non-SAFF opposition without Chhetri in the lineup.
Chhetri missed three of India's friendlies in 2017 - against Nepal, Mauritius and St Kitts Nevis in that order. They won against Nepal and Mauritius and were held by St Kitts Nevis. And the 2-1 win against Mauritius in August 2017 was the last time India won without Chhetri in the team, before the recent win against Thailand.
The dependency has been so huge that it had been almost improbable at times to think about Indian football's future when, one day, Chhetri hangs up his boots. But maybe, the kids aren't so bad after all.
The next generation of football faithful have enough talent to take India to the next level. The players need to be confident in goalscoring areas and make sure they score goals when opportunities are presented to them. The likes of Jobby Justin, Farukh Chaudhury and Ashique Kuruniyan need to come into prominence and ensure the result against Thailand is no flash in the pan.