Sunil Chhetri has been leading the way for the Indian National football team for such a long time now that it has become impossible to think of a first-team lineup without the Bengaluru FC player positioned up front.
Both as skipper and a forward, Chhetri has delivered when it mattered on innumerable occasions. But when India take on Kyrgyzstan in the AFC Asian Cup qualifier match on March 27, the absence of India's best forward can be regarded as a great opportunity for the rest of the strikers in the squad. It is a chance to prove their merit to head coach Stephen Constantine before the finals in 2019.
India have already booked their berth in the Asian Cup and result-wise, Tuesday's game in Kyrgyzstan holds nothing at stake except a top-spot in the group standings. More importantly, though, the race to prove a point starts for the strikers in the squad.
Balwant Singh's late renaissance has fetched two goals for India in the qualification round but he has only recorded 88 minutes on the pitch if you exclude friendly games. In the battle to be the quintessential forward alongside Chhetri in the national team, Balwant Singh has a door in front of him that is waiting to be opened.
The Mumbai City forward netted six goals in the recently concluded Indian Super League (ISL) campaign and that is his best goalscoring return in a season since scoring 10 goals for Churchill Brothers in 2013-14 I-League season.
Jeje Lalpekhlua not only has an ISL winner's medal but was second on the list of top Indian goalscorers in the competition with nine goals from 20 games, behind none other than Sunil Chhetri.
Chennaiyin FC masterminded a terrific season and Jeje contributed when it mattered. The 'Mizo Sniper' had endured a seven-game goalless streak but put an end to it with a crucial brace in the second leg of the semi-final against FC Goa.
His goal tally in the 2017-18 season is a career-best for him (if you exclude his record at AIFF's Arrows team) and it's high time that Jeje started influencing the proceedings up front at the senior national level as well. With five goals already in the qualifiers (which is the most he has scored for India in any competition), he already is making progress.
Seminlen Doungel, Hitesh Sharma and Manvir Singh are young talents who should be looking to make the most of their call-up for the game against Kyrgyzstan. With progress to the finals certain, Constantine can afford to give these players their first start for the national team. All three players had a forgettable season with their clubs domestically with Doungel the only player to score goals (4 for NorthEast United).
It is not logical to expect India to get potential dead-rubbers in any competition that would allow the head coach to award minutes to the fringe players and now that they have a chance, it will be interesting to see who, if anyone, will grab it with both hands.