ISL 2019-20: A productive professional layover for Nerijus Valskis

In his short stint so far with Chennaiyin FC, the peripatetic Valskis finds himself at the forefront of his team's spirited revival.

Nerijus Valskis has scored eight goals from 12 matches this season for Chennaiyin FC. - R. RAGU

sLithuania to Thailand via Bulgaria, Latvia, Belarus, Romania, Poland and Israel. That’s the career path of Nerijus Valskis, a striker who has taken to the life of a journeyman since making his professional debut in 2005. And now he finds himself in India, in the race for the golden boot and spearheading a team that’s dreaming of an unlikely playoff spot just weeks after being rock bottom in the Indian Super League table.

His first foray outside Europe was with Ratchaburi Mitr Phol FC in Thailand in 2018. He fit in well there, scoring nine goals from fifteen games, while having his family — his wife and two kids — living with him.

Here in India, it's the hotel life with his family making occasional visits.

“That [in Thailand] life is good, personally,” Valskis admits. “But professionally, things are better here. And that matters.”

The prolific striker Chennaiyin missed

Former coach John Gregory had lamented at the lack of a secondary striker to ease the burden on a struggling Jeje Lalpekhlua, who was hampered by injuries last season.

“Look at FC Goa, Bengaluru FC, NorthEast, who all had outstanding overseas players, especially [Bartholomew] Ogbeche. Top four teams all had outstanding goalscorers last season, who won matches for them. We didn't have that last year,” Gregory said at the start of the season.

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Gregory was confident that Valskis will prove to be his 10-plus goals-a-season striker. Although the Englishman had brought in the Lithuanian in the off-season, it is his successor, Owen Coyle, who is profiting from the striker's prolific touch.

In the last eight outings for Chennaiyin, he has struck as many goals, which helped Chennaiyin register four wins and two draws during this period.

Breaking the duck

Valskis picks his first goal of the season — a 96th-minute winner against Hyderabad FC — to be pivotal in this run. Chasing its first win of the season, Chennaiyin was pegged back in the 95th-minute by Hyderabad on the night before the striker scored the winner.

“I felt I was finished,” he recollects holding his legs, indicating he had nothing left to give at 1-1. “We did everything but they were about to take two points from us.”

“I didn't think we weren't going to get another chance. Hyderabad were about to counter us but we stole the ball and when Germanpreet [Singh] passed towards me, I knew that was our last chance. After that, I scored an amazing goal!”

On his wild celebration following that goal, he adds, “You see, I was running like Usain Bolt all around the track despite being tired. This goal changed everything for me and our team.”

Right mentality

Valskis’ appetite for goals was evident during Chennaiyin's win over NorthEast United last week. His goal had already given Chennaiyin a 2-0 lead and with his side coasting in the 90th minute, he won the ball from Andy Keogh in the centre circle before making a run into the box hoping to get on to the end of a cross. There was no cross, however, and he made his frustration evident to his team-mate.

Nerijus Valskis (front) celebrates after scoring against NorthEast United. - M. VEDHAN

“We always analyse the opposition and their left-back is very short and I want my second [goal],” the Lithuanian international says.

“I was sure I could outjump him and win this ball. That's why I was a little bit angry but it's 2-0 so I cannot be too angry,” he says, laughing.

While Rafael Crivellaro’s David Beckham-esque goal rightfully made headlines, Valskis’ strike was also a thing of beauty: an interception followed by a left-footed strike that swerved into the top corner with the 'keeper rooted.

But for him, it was the three points that mattered more, allowing Chennaiyin to remain in playoffs contention.

The next move

Moving clubs every season can be a difficult prospect for players, be it physically adapting to new coaches and team-mates or the mental acclimatisation to new cultures. Valskis, however, has taken to life on the road.

“I enjoy it, I get to see the world. I experience different cultures. If you find a country that you feel good in and your team wants you, you stay. Otherwise, you move,” he says.

So, will he be at Chennaiyin next season or will he be packing his bags again?

“I want to stay in India. Maybe at Chennaiyin... we’ll see what plans the club has at the end of the season. If I get a chance to stay in the country, I will take it.”

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