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ISL 2018-19: Time for Komal Thatal to stake his claim on the big stage?

06:42 GMT+3 12/09/2018
Komal Thatal
It's time for the Sikkimese winger to prove that he is more than just a flash in the pan...

Komal Thatal has managed to get only 14 minutes of competitive action under his belt after his performance against the USA in India's opener in the U17 World Cup in October 2017. 

He was left out of the 23-man squad named by former coach Luis Norton de Matos for the AFC U19 Championship and his decision to join a disjointed ATK, who had three coaches last season, rather than Indian Arrows further stunted the possibilities of him getting minutes on the pitch.

While his former U17 teammates were busy plying their trade in the I-League he had to remain content with a fringe player with the ATK squad. His lack of playing opportunities also meant that he could not force his way into the U19 squad which has been criss-crossing the world on exposure tours to lock horns against top quality opponents. 

But things are shaping up well in pre-season for Thatal under the guidance of new head coach of ATK, Steve Coppell. Till now, the Kolkata-based side have played three matches in Spain and Thatal has made two starts and came off from the bench in the other game for the last half-hour. 

In the first match of the Coppell era against Spanish fourth division side Lorca FC, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) elite academy product put in an impressive shift and almost set up Manuel Lanzarote in front of goal until a timely intervention from a Lorca defender averted the danger.

Thatal's strengths are his agility and ability to get the better of a defender in a one-on-one situation. His string of stirring performances in the U17 BRICS tournament in 2016 catapulted him to the limelight. The equaliser against Brazil was a typical example of a left winger who loves to cut inside and have a crack at goal. The solo effort exuded confidence and highlighted his potential. 

During the U17 world cup, Matos reasoned that Thatal lacks the physicality to cope with the challenge of playing against tall and sturdy defenders and hence was relegated to the bench for the next two matches against Colombia and Ghana respectively.

“You want to talk about individual players but for me, the team is collective. If you think Komal was the perfect player to win duels against physically strong teams like Colombia and Ghana, then you are a very good coach!," reasoned the Portuguese coach when asked about the exclusion.

A lot of praise was showered on Thatal after his performance in the USA game where he had shown his dribbling skills, albeit without end product. But the coach was not convinced, which was evident in the remarks after the game. 

The lean teenager from Sikkim must work on this aspect as skill, only when complemented by body strength, can be effective in modern football. In a top tier professional tournament opposition defenders will always be on the lookout to unnerve a young lad with some rough tackles early on. Only a mentally and physically astute player can hope to rise up to the challenge and fight back with equal gusto. 

A disciplined defence and a knack to attack on the counter is Coppell's brand of football and Thatal's mercurial pace will be an asset for this style. Moreover, Coppell likes to keep it tight at the back and his wingers play an important part in his schema of defending. They are asked to track back whenever the team has lost possession which implies that the 18-year-old must perform his defensive duties as well if he wants to establish himself as a regular starter. 

His inclusion in the starting XI in the friendly against English Premier League side Fulham testifies the trust that the British tactician has put on him. The onus is now on the winger to perform and dispel the gloom after having a bright start to his career.