The young Indian team showed a lot of promise and determination to ensure a berth for 2012 AFC Challenge Cup by securing the top of the group standing in their qualifying campaign. The Men In Blue blanked Chinese Taipei 3-0 in their campaign opener, before outclassing arch-rivals Pakistan 3-1 and then holding on Turkmenistan for a 1-1 draw, even after fielding a second string starting line-up. All in all it was a satisfying tour to Malaysia for Bob and his boys.

TheHardTackle reviews and analyzes the on-field performances dished out by each individual players and rates them on a scale of 0-10. We will categorize the players based on their performances in to four groups – 1. Outstanding Performers, 2. Excellent Performers and 3. Ordinary Performers. We will present to you the report card in three installments. Here’s the first installment on Outstanding Performers, with their detailed contribution in the qualifying campaign.

Outstanding Performers

1. Jeje Lalpekhlua – 9

Undoubtedly the star of the tournament for India, with 4 goals in 3 matches. The debutant youngster found the back of the net in all three games. He opened his scoring account when he neatly controlled a pass from his strike partner Sunil Chhetri and beat the Chinese Taipei goalie with a clean finish, to make his debut a memorable one. He continued in the same fashion against arch-rival Pakistan to score a brilliant brace and paved way for the other goal, when he was fouled on the edge of the box and Steven Dias converted an astonishing free-kick. His first goal against Pakistan came from a measured cross by Rahim Nabi, which the promising striker burried home towards the far corner with aplomb. His second goal against Pakistan came in the dying minutes when he combined well with Sunil Chhetri to neatly control a long looping ball from the skipper and  blasted it past the helpless Pak goalie. Then in the third match against Turkmenistan Jeje turned savior once again, as he restored parity by scoring the equalizer for his country when his right footed scorcher from the edge of the box found the back of the net around the hour mark.

The best thing about Jeje is his unmatched poacher’s instinct, which has already drawn the inevitable comparison with the legendary Baichung Bhutia. His positioning sense is truly world class; also he has a powerful and accurate right foot. There is a uncanny sudden burst of pace, which helps him to clear his marker with ease, but he has to work on his off-the-ball movements. Also his game reading ability leaves a lot to be desired. If he can work on these two key areas, he will prove to be a lethal weapon and keep the tri-color flying high.

Jeje Lalpekhlua - a memorable debut

2. Subrata Pal – 7.5

Mr. Dependable of Team India was at his reliable best in this tournament as well. He started off with a clean-sheet against Chinese Taipei and made some crucial saves against Pakistan and Turkmenistan to help India finish the campaign on top. The mere presence of this flamboyant custodian under the wood-work instills a sense of confidence in Indian defense-line. He was beaten only once from open play, when the ball took an awkward bounce to find the back of the net against Pakistan; the other goal came from a spot-kick against Turkmenistan and he could hardly be faulted for either of the goals.

The way he marshals his defenders deserves a lot of credit. Also his ability to deal with aerial threats inside the six yards box, coupled with his unmatched commitment and composure makes him of one of the best goalkeepers in Asian continent at the moment.

3. Sunil Chhetri -7

Thrusted with the captain’s armband in Bhutia’s absence and the diminutive striker come out with flying colors. Against Chinese Taipei, Chhetri assisted Jeje with a fine touch to score the opener before scripting his name on the scoring chart with the second Indian goal. He was at his influential best against Pakistan as well and it was his relentless pressure and cheeky off-the-ball movements, which kept the opposition defenders engaged with him and Jeje was able to play with a lot of freedom. He was denied by the woodwork once and on another occasion his shot went agonizingly wide of the target, but he kept up the pressure and assisted with an accurate 30 yards looping delivery for Jeje to score his third goal of the tournament. He was rested in the last inconsequential game against Turkmenistan so that Bob could check out the bench strngth. However Sunil needs to work on his conversion rate which would help him to develop as a complete striker.

4. Syed Rahim Nabi – 7

Perhaps the most versatile player in the whole squad – he could play as a winger, a defender, a midfielder and even as a striker. He was predominantly used on the left wing, but his high energy display ensured he was there to support his teammates in both attacking and defensive duties. He could not only be seen tracking back when the opposition players were going for quick counter attacks, but also almost  every Indian attack from the left side of the pitch originated from his boots. He was brilliant in providing the required width to Indian attack and sending in relentless crosses for the strikers to poach in – the equalizer against Pakistan was scored from one such cross.

However, he should, perhaps, look to cut in more often while going up, especially while counter attacking. His flag kicks and crosses were decent most of the times, but he can still work on perfecting the art of taking corner kicks and inch-perfect crosses.

The versatile Rahim Nabi deserves credit

5. Steven Dias – 6.5

After a poor Asian Cup campaign, the Desi Beckham came to his usual best in this tournament. He started off slowly against Chinese Tapei, but grew in confidence, as the match progressed and provided few delicious crosses. However, it was against Pakistan that he found the desired rhythm and created a number of chances from the right wing. He capped off a fine display with a goal to his name in that 3-1 win over the arch-rivals. The goal came from his trademark Beckham-esque right-footed free-kick from around 20 yards out which left the Pakistan goalie flabbergasted.

He was rested for the game against Turkmenistan so that Bob Houghton could give some of the younger players the much needed exposure. Steven should look to improve his deliveries from flag kick – his corners were largely one-dimensional to say the least.

6. Gourmangi Singh – 6.5

The Manipuri central defender is certainly one of the most improved players over the course of last couple of years. Although the lack of attacking intent from the opponent teams in this tournament helped him to breathe easy, he dealt with the occasional attacking threats with clamness and composure. He was confident to deal with aerial balls from the flag kicks and distributed the ball promptly to the midfielders to help them launch quick counter attacks. Also he utilized his height to good effect inside the opposition box from set piece attacks.

His good match reading capability coupled with excellent positioning sense makes his defending job much easier, but in order to do well against quick and physically stronger West Asian nations, Gourmangi needs to improve his pace – if he can extract a couple of yards pace, he would surely be regarded as a reliable and full-proof defender who will serve the country for years to come.

[Part-2 Coming Soon]