Asian Cup 2019: Jeje Lalpekhlua not bogged down by poor form ahead of Thailand opener
For the second most capped player in the Indian team behind skipper Sunil Chhetri, it’s not the kind of season that Jeje Lalpekhlua would have hoped to endure in a year as important as this one. The striker who turns up for Chennaiyin FC in the Indian Super League (ISL) is yet to find the back of the net in the domestic circuit this season.
It’s this indifferent form that had forced a few eyebrows to go up when he was named in Stephen Constantine’s 23-man squad for the AFC Asian Cup that gets underway in Abu Dhabi from Friday (January 5). For a man who was considered to take over the mantle from Chhetri when the right time comes, things have definitely taken an awkward turn.
But try having a chat with the Mizo snipper, as he’s fondly called, any such inhibitions will soon be put to rest.
Football gives you both ups and downs: Jeje
“Look, there’s pressure on me to score goals. There’s no denying that,” said the 27-year-old after another training session in Abu Dhabi that saw him work tirelessly on improving his finishing skills.
"But then again, such things happen. Football will give you both ups and downs, the only thing you can do is work hard. Put in those extra yards in training. I have been doing this. I have been working a lot on my finishing and I hope things will fall in place for me soon.”
While goal scoring has been a trouble for Jeje, for the national team, the Mizoram-born striker is more than just a goal-scorer. One among the senior pros in the side, he has been instrumental in helping the new boys get accustomed to the routine of a national team and on the pitch has been a vital figure in pulling his side out of trouble quite often than not.
And though he admits that the goal drought has affected the other aspects of his game, not once does the Indian forward wander away from his responsibility to the team. “Yes, it does. As a striker, scoring is primary for me. But if I can’t, I want to help my team win at any cost. That’s one thing that I have clear in my head,” he said.
Jeje helping the youngsters tackle pressure
And one such responsibility on Jeje would be to help this young side tackle pressure that comes along with playing a competition as big as the Asian Cup. “I think the team is pumped up. They are ready and confident of putting up a good show,” he said somewhat denying any talks of pressure on the side.
“All of us have played so many games at the club and the country level. Yes, the pressure will be different, but I am sure that the team can handle it.”
The Indian team has been in Abu Dhabi for a while and even played a friendly against Oman behind closed doors. While nothing much was known about it, Jeje sounded confident speaking about team’s preparedness for their biggest competition in recent history.
“I don’t think we need to think much. The team has been together for over two years now. The guys understand each other. You no longer need to explain things to the boys. They are good enough to read the game and know what a team-mate will do.
"I think the recent performances have been a testament to that. And that’s one reason why we are here at the Asian Cup.”
India begins their campaign at the Asian Cup against Thailand on Sunday (January 6), and though the Thai side that surprised many with their inspiring run in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers a few years ago, has seen a downward trend in its form, Jeje was cautious not to look over them. “This is the biggest tournament in Asia. No match is going to be easy,” he said.
“They (Thailand) are a good side who have had a string of good results coming into the Asian Cup. They will be wanting to have a good start to their campaign and so do we.
“I don’t think (we can read much into their loss to Oman in the friendly). For all, you know the Thailand we see on Sunday could be completely different from the one that turned up against Oman.
"In that game, Oman got and penalty to take the lead. If you are to ask me, I think Thailand played better football that day, and that’s what will matter on Sunday. There’s a huge difference between friendlies and a competitive game.”