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Year-end special: Sunil Chhetri had a memorable 2013

 Atanu Mitra
 COMMENT | India
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2013 wasn’t a memorable year for the national team as they failed to qualify for the 2014 Challenge Cup and lost to Afghanistan in the South Asian Football Federation Championship (SAFF) as well. However there were quite a few players who excelled. Lalrindika Ralte and Mehtab Hossain played an important role in East Bengal making it into the AFC Cup semi-final while Karanjit Singh and Francis Fernandes continued to impress with Salgaocar FC.

Amongst all stood a diminutive striker who recently became the highest goal-scorer for India besides winning the I-League title for the first time in his career – Sunil Chhetri.

The Sporting stint didn't go as planned

The move to Sporting CP’s ‘B’ side wasn’t fruitful and the nightmare continued for the Secunderabad-born footballer as he failed to earn enough game-time in the second tier of the Portugese League. He managed to make a mere three appaearances in the Segunda Liga, staying on the turf for only 43 minutes in total.

Thankfully for Chhetri, he was sent out on loan and it was Churchill Brothers who secured his prized signature.

‘He is class player. His first goal (against Mohammedan Sporting) was out of this world. Controlling the ball with such poise and then unleashing a volley was simply amazing. I am a big fan of Sunil.’

- Ahsley Westwood

This wasn’t the first instance of Chhetri deciding to move back to the national league in India after enduring a similar experience in his stint with Kansas City Wizards, now known as Sporting Kansas, when he came back to join United Sports Club back in 2011.

He made his I-League debut for the Goan side on 19th March against Air India. His biggest contribution in the team's success story last season came in Churchill's 2-2 draw with Dempo, when he scored a brace with both the goals coming from free-kicks.

"Firstly, I’d like to announce a round of applause for our record holder Sunil. It’s an historical moment." - Wim Koevermans
He also scored the all-important goal in Churchill's 1-1 draw with Mohun Bagan which earned them the I-League trophy. His strike took the Red Machines past the finishing line and that epitomized the impetus his signing had provided the team with.

Just as the tide seemed to change in favour of him, Sunil parted ways with his sixth I-League outfit Churchill Brothers and joined the newly-formed Bengaluru FC as their marquee signing.

"I met the people at JSW a few months ago and the first thing that struck me was the passion behind all the planning. I want to play for a club that's clear about its vision and I saw that in JSW. I know I am coming from a champion team but that works as more motivation here," said Chettri.

This was indeed a gamble by the India skipper as he joined a new team who had the task of establishing a fan base but had the comforts of not getting relegated which could ease the pressure on the players to perform.

Though Ashley Westwood, the gaffer of Bengaluru FC opted to leave him out of the team's first ever I-League match, he have remained a regular member of the starting line-up since then, appearing in all 15 of the club's I-League clashes.

Sunil has become an instant hit with Bengaluru

It must also be noted that Chhetri was deployed on the left in a three pronged attack – something which he wasn’t used to. But he adapted and thereby had one the best moments in his club career as he is the top scorer in the league after 16 rounds of matches.

Another important milestone Chhetri achieved in 2013 was to surpass Bhaichung Bhutia and become the top scorer for the country with 43 goals.

He scored 5 goals in 11 matches for the national team this year and though this is not his best year in the Blue shirt by any means, he has led the team well in the transitional period.

The captain led from the front

Putting aside all the records and incredible statistics, Chhetri has now silenced his critics who always pointed that his performance for the national team would always be better than what he delievered at the club level.

Chhetri is arguably the best Indian forward in the country and is on par with some of the foreign strikers plying their trade in the I-League and rightly won the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) Indian Player of the Year award.

"If u train super hard, be disciplined, eat healthy and rest well ..u can actually turn into a MACHINE.."

- Sunil Chhetri on twitter

As Bengaluru top the league charts, 2014 will be another very important year in Chhetri's career as all are eager to see whether he can inspire his  side to win the title in their very first year.

It will also be interesting to see whether he can become the first Indian to become the highest scorer in an I-League season.

What do you make of Sunil's performances in 2013? Send in your thoughts in the comments below or discuss with the writer on Twitter@Atanu00

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