In the recently-concluded AFC Asian Cup 2023 Qualifiers, the Indian national football team played brilliantly throughout the tournament and finished top of the group.
Captain Sunil Chhetri displayed the characteristics of a prolific forward, netting four times in three qualifiers. The team looked convincing both on offense and defense and made sure they conceded very little.
In the first game against Cambodia, Chhetri bagged a brace. A first-half penalty, after Liston Colaco was brought down, was converted, followed by a sublime header in the second half to secure the win.
The following game against Afghanistan posed a different threat as Anoush Dastgir's side were a comparatively more physical side. Yet, that wasn't enough to stop the Blue Tigers, as Chhetri scored from a free-kick and Sahal added a second to oust the Afghans.
The last and final group game of the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers was against Hong Kong, a side that had won all their games and was on top of the table. India secured qualification ahead of kick-off but Igor Stimac's men were determined to finish the campaign on a high.
An early goal from Anwar Ali was followed by Sunil Chhetri's goal just before half-time. However, the team did not stop there. Substitutes Manvir Singh and Ishan Pandita added two more in the final moments of the game.
However, during this AFC Asian Cup 2023 Qualifiers, the Indian national team had a few leading characters that played a bigger role than others in driving the side to success. Let's take a look at the top five players who shone during the qualifiers.
#1 Suresh Singh Wangjam
The 21-year-old Bengaluru FC midfielder dazzled everyone with his performances in the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers. His display consisted of maturity and exuberance and Igor Stimac's side gained a lot of momentum because of him.
Suresh managed to screen the two central defenders and intercept opposition moves. He was quick during transitions and irrespective of the quality of the opponent, maintained a physical approach during these qualifiers.
#2 Jeakson Singh
Partnering Suresh Singh Wangjam in the centre of midfield, Jeakson Singh formed a double-pivot in front of the defense. The midfielder, who has had a similar role for his club Kerala Blasters FC during ISL 2021-22, was familiar with the job at hand and dealt with his responsibilities with finesse.
His towering presence in midfield was vital to the Blue Tiger's plans to recycle possession and prohibit the opposition in their attempt to progress into the Indian half of the pitch. Jeakson even went on to provide an important assist to Sunil Chhetri when the skipper netted India's second goal against Hong Kong.
#3 Anwar Ali
The young FC Goa defender was a phenomenon at the heart of the Blue Tigers' defense. Anwar's composure with and without the ball along with his ball progression skills, especially the long diagonals, were a treat to the eyes of everyone watching.
The 21-year-old did not have a great campaign with his club side FC Goa but surely made up for it in national colors. His partnership with Sandesh Jhingan paid off for the Indian national football team as they clinched two clean sheets in the qualifiers and bagged top spot in their group.
#4 Ashique Kuruniyan
Ashique Kuruniyan, a left-winger who on certain occasions has been deployed as a left-back by Bengaluru FC, had a phenomenal campaign for the Indian team in the qualifiers.
The pacy winger, with his flair, made sure that the opposition were unsettled at the back. He combined well with Akash Mishra in disrupting the defensive orientation of both Afghanistan and Hong Kong.
The winger also recorded an assist against the Afghans when he set up Sahal Abdul Samad for the late winner in India's second encounter at the AFC Asian Cup 2023 qualifiers.
#5 Sunil Chhetri
The Indian national team captain and the nation's footballing heartthrob, Sunil Chhetri, was the star of the show at the AFC Asian Cup 2023 Qualifiers.
Bagging four goals, with one coming from a direct free-kick against Afghanistan, Chhetri answered critics with his heroics, carrying the nation's hopes into another Asian Cup.
The skipper had a difficult season with the Blues, carrying an injury and took time to get back to form with the national side. The 37-year-old, with his calm demeanor, led the Blue Tigers from the front and adapted to every possible tactical discipline employed by head coach Igor Stimac.
Sunil Chhetri's performances throughout the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers have become a talking point for every Indian football fan who feels inspired by the skipper's outing.