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ISL: There ain't no stopping Chhangte 2.0

Lallianzuala Chhangte Sandeep Shetty / Focus Sports/ ISL

It's the third minute of the crunch Indian Super League game between Mumbai City and ATK Mohun Bagan, and Lallianzuala Chhangte is running like only he can (on these shores).

A loose pass from Carl McHugh is seized upon, Brendan Hammill's misjudged interception is cleverly anticipated and Subhasish Bose has no chance of catching Chhangte as he sprints into the box. One-on-one with Vishal Kaith, just past the penalty spot, he smashes it into the keeper's body. Miss one.

Five minutes later, Alberto Noguera dispossesses McHugh at the halfway line and releases Greg Stewart. He runs at the Bagan defence, pulling defenders into his orbit before slipping it wide to Chhangte, who's raced into the box down the right. Opening up his body, with no one but the keeper to beat, Chhangte smashes it... straight at Kaith again. Miss two.

A quiet period later, in the 24th minute, Bipin Singh is steaming towards the Bagan defence. As he looks up there's no one in sky blue next to him so he keeps running. A couple of seconds later, Chhangte is beside him - despite being 30 yards behind play, he's caught up with absurd ease. Bipin does the clever thing, pulls his marker wide, and slips Chhangte down the inside-left channel, another one-on-one with Kaith. A terrible first touch and an even worse second one later, the ball's rolling out for a goal kick. Miss three.

Now, imagine you've missed Indian football for the whole of 2022. You haven't seen any of it, you haven't read about any of it. On Saturday, January 14, 2023, you're air-dropped into the Salt Lake stadium and this is what you see: this hattrick of chances missed by Zuala Chhangte. It'd be perfectly okay for you to shake your head in annoyance... 'Oh, nothing's changed, eh?' For you to think 'All that talent, all that potential. What could have been!?'

For years, this is what Chhangte had been doing to Indian football fans. Proclaimed the next big thing when he became one of the Indian national team's youngest-ever goalscorers in 2015 (an absolute banger, at that), Chhangte consistently threatened to break through... and consistently kept failing at the final hurdle.

In March 2020, while speaking to ESPN ahead of their ISL final, then Chennaiyin head coach Owen Coyle summed up what most felt about Chhangte: "This boy, he does the most difficult thing in football very easily -- penetrating in behind. It comes naturally to him. But when he comes to the last step, he needs to gather some composure, slow down and calm himself. When you are composed, you give yourself a chance to make a better pass, take a better shot."

That season, 2019-20, had been his most productive season ever, with seven goals and it had come when Coyle had placed his full faith in him... starting him and keeping him in the XI regardless of the missed chances. "He just needed someone to trust him, to believe in him," said Coyle at the time. The next season Coyle was gone. And so was Chhangte's form. He scored just four goals (and had one assist). The season after that? Just the one goal and one assist.

What could have possibly changed in a year, eh? 'Oh, nothing's changed' indeed.

Except it has.

In minute 29 of this game against ATK Mohun Bagan, he showed it. The Chhangte of yore would have withdrawn into his shell after all those misses, inner demons eating at him, the imagined frustration of those watching crushing him. The shoulders would have slumped, the head would have dropped.

The Chhangte of 2023 does none of that. He had come into the game on seven goals (and three assists) in 13 ISL games. He finished the pre-season with a golden-boot-winning seven goals in the 2022 Durand Cup. He was not going to shy away.

It started with Stewart running at the Bagan defence and then pulling it back for Noguera. It ended with Chhangte larruping it into the far bottom corner of the net from just outside the box. Three Bagan defenders had rushed in to close him down, Kaith behind them had been in great form all day (all season, in fact) and none of them mattered.

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Chhangte took the ball and willed it into the goal. Mumbai City led 1-0 and that's how it would end, with Mumbai sealing their playoff spot and protecting their till-now-invincible season.

Speaking to ESPN ahead of the season, Chhangte had made it a point to stress how much he understood the major weakness in his game. How he had been spending time with the coaching staff, and by himself, working on finishing drills and shooting techniques. He had spoken about how he was putting his head down, doubling up on the hard work and leaving the rest to God.

He had also said that this season wasn't going to be like the others -- how he had set a fixed target (a number he wouldn't divulge, not till the season ends he had said) and how sure he was of achieving that target. The crux of the message: he was going to do his talking on the pitch.

We won't know for sure what that target was till the season is up, but he must be well en route to hitting it. He now has eight goals in 14 games. In the whole league, only Cleiton Silva has more (nine), and Chhangte is not on penalty duty, unlike Silva. He has more goal contributions two-thirds through this season than he had in his past two seasons combined.

What is more, there is an inevitability to him affecting the scoreline. Even in games where Mumbai almost exclusively attack down their left (for instance against Kerala Blasters, where they targeted the Blasters' right flank), Chhangte gets involved - with a peach of an assist that day. You just can't keep him out of games.

Signed on permanently by Mumbai City despite an underwhelming (numbers-wise) loan spell initially, Chhangte seems to have finally rediscovered himself under a manager who believes in him. And with it has come a vein of form everyone knew was in him but very few believed he could actually find. There's nothing quite like seeing unfulfilled potential blossom, is there?

So if you see Chhangte bear down on goal and miss a couple of sitters these days... don't fret. He'll take the next one, or the one after that. Or he'll keep at it till one goes in. The 'new' Lallianzuala Chhangte is here to stay.