With new regulations of fielding six Indian players in the starting line-up, Chennaiyin FC made a bold but sensible decision of turning down the opportunity of signing marquee players ahead of the fourth season of Indian Super League.
Coach John Gregory underlined that his coaching staff will be focused on developing young talent from within the country. The think tank made the decision of retaining youngsters Anirudh Thapa and Jerry Lalrinzuala to its squad ahead of the ISL draft.
Twelve matches into the season, its commitment to blood young talent seems to be paying dividends.
The name which has been synonymous on the lips of Indian football fans and pundits alike is Thapa's. The diminutive midfielder has seized his opportunities and is the driving force from the middle of the park.
After his man of the match performance in the 2-1 comeback win over ATK, his manager John Gregory attributed to his strengths. "He is a great passer and has great feet. He's got a good first touch and he looks after the ball, he's quick and knows how to keep the ball in control and moving," said the Englishman.
Standing out from the rest
Thapa, who turned 20 this month, plays with a maturity and understanding of the game which seems beyond his tender years. His energy on the pitch always stands out from the rest of the players. The midfielder's attributes have earned him nine league appearances so far under Gregory, including back to back starts against NorthEast United and ATK last week. He followed up his maiden ISL goal against NorthEast with an assist for the equalising goal against the Kolkata based side.
"I was not sure of playing in so many matches since there is a lot of competition within the team. I have to practice hard and give my 100 percent so the coach can give me another chance," said Thapa during an open training session at Nehru Park on Thursday.
Standing at less than 5'7", Thapa uses his low center of gravity to good effect. He orchestrated wave after wave of attacks after his side went behind in the first half. This forced ATK to resort to rough tackles in its attempt to mark him out of the game. The Dehradun-born footballer isn't worried about the undue attention that would be coming his way from the opposition defenders. "It's not a worry for me unless I get injured. In midfield, I have to hold the ball and if I run away from that duty I won't play my natural game," said the India U-23 international.
Germanpreet biding his time
At the draft, CFC also picked up 21-year-old holding midfielder Germanpreet Singh after his impressive display at Minerva Punjab in the 2016-17 I-League season. However, his playing time has been limited to just 215 minutes on the pitch due to the emergence of Dhanpal Ganesh in the pivot. "My morale is good. Dhanpal has been playing well. My focus is to train well and wait for my opportunity," said Germanpreet.
Germanpreet's and Thapa's paths have converged in the last one year, being part of the same squad with the U-23 setup. They also formed the midfield partnership at Minerva last year where their performances earned them their first senior caps.
Of their schooling at Minerva, "We had a group of young players playing together. It was a friendly atmosphere since we all knew each other from a young age. We played in the Minerva U-23 side also so we had a good bond," Thapa said as Germanpreet nodded along.
While Germanpreet's time under the lights may come in the future, Thapa will be looking to make the most of his momentum to force national team coach Stephen Constantine's hand to book him a seat on the plane to UAE for the AFC Asian Cup in 2019.
"One more qualifier is left. If I gain confidence from here (Chennaiyin), the coach (Constantine) will give me a chance in that qualifier," Thapa reasoned. As Gregory opined, it would be crazy of Constantine to overlook Thapa for the national side if the youngster continues his development at this rate.