Jeje key as India eye top spot in Asian Cup qualifiers
Debayan Sen
March 26, 2018
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A little over a week ago, Jeje Lalpekhlua was leading the attack for Chennaiyin FC in the ISL final against Bengaluru FC. Jeje, the top Indian scorer in ISL history, didn't get a goal in Chennaiyin's 3-1 win, but made his presence felt all the same as a lone striker. He might play a similar role in India colours on Tuesday when Stephen Constantine's team travels to Bishkek for their first international match of 2018, away to Kyrgyzstan in the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.

With both sides having already secured qualification, the only thing at stake is the top spot in Group A, which could mean a relatively favourable Asian Cup draw in April for the continental championships next January.

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Sunil Chhetri, who scored the winner against Kyrgyzstan in Bengaluru, will miss the match due to suspension. In the absence of Chhetri and other regulars like Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Pritam Kotal and Jackichand Singh, Jeje would be the senior-most player on the pitch.

Jeje's greatest asset, something that Chhetri often vouches for, is his physical strength. "Jeje uses his body well. When the ball is bunted forward, he will bring it down, and bring other players into play," Chhetri had told ESPN once. That skill was precisely what helped Jeje set up Raphael Augusto for Chennaiyin's crucial third goal in the ISL final, which put the game beyond BFC's reach.

Jeje had effectively led the line in Chhetri's absence during a couple of friendlies last year, of which India won one and drew one. Those were all on home soil, though, and he would need to make every bit of possession count in Bishkek, where India are likely see less of the ball. India have three wins in three against Kyrgyzstan, but this is the first time they're facing them away from home.

He might be joined in attack by the industrious Balwant Singh and the pacy Udanta Singh, and fellow-ISL winner Dhanpal Ganesh could be a key component of the midfield. Kotal's absence means India are a little short on options at right-back, with five other members of the defence - Subhasish Bose, Nishu Kumar, Lalruatthara, Jerry Lalrinzuala and Narayan Das - all more comfortable playing on the left. It would be interesting to see if Constantine puts one of them on the right, or brings in centre back Salam Ranjan Singh in that position.

The onus will remain on Jeje, though, to provide both leadership and quality on the pitch. After a somewhat subdued run-up to the ISL playoffs, Jeje has also found some rich scoring form in recent times, ending the season with nine goals, two of which came in a crucial semi-final home leg against FC Goa. The secret behind both strikes was the same -- keeping his shape in the opposition half and pouncing on every half-chance resulting from a defensive error.

If he can do the same on Tuesday, Jeje could set India on the right path to UAE 2019 with a young squad around him.

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