It’s the 24th minute of Mumbai City FC’s away tie against ATK Mohun Bagan in the Indian Super League (ISL) on 14 January, when the Islanders launch a counterattack. Bipin Singh Thounaojam makes a mad dash on the left towards the final third, before slipping the ball to his Mumbai teammate, Lallianzuala Chhangte. He has just the ATK Mohun Bagan goalkeeper, Vishal Kaith, to beat, but a bungled touch sees the ball go out of play.
This was the third of a series of juicy opportunities that fell to Chhangte. Twice before, he had been spectacularly denied by Kaith. But the last chance was a clear miss. Chhangte buried his face in the turf in despair, before picking himself up. “I thought it was going to be one of my worst nights,” Chhangte, 25, says on the phone, chuckling. “But I kept believing and kept trying and it eventually worked out.”
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Five minutes later, Alberto Noguero pushes the ball to Chhangte from the right. With three defenders closing in on him, Chhangte sets up the ball for his favoured left foot and guides it into the Mohun Bagan goal, Kaith finally beaten. There’s more relief than celebration, as Chhangte goes down on his knees and says a little prayer. It turns out to be the match winning goal.
Then on Thursday last week, Mumbai City beat NorthEast United 4-0 to take their unbeaten streak to 10 games this season—a tournament record—and one step closer to earning ISL’s very own “Invincibles” tag. Chhangte’s strike against ATK Mohun Bagan made it eight goals for him this season—one short of his teammate, Jorge Pereyra Diaz, and Cleiton Silva of East Bengal,who lead the scoring chart. That’s more goals than the seven Chhangte had scored at former club, Chennaiyin FC, when they finished runners-up in the 2019-20 season.
About a year ago, the nifty winger from Mizoram joined Mumbai City on loan. In his seven appearances, he had no goals or assists to his name. But after featuring in every minute of their historic AFC Champions League campaign in April, he had done enough to feature in coach Des Buckingham’s plans for the new season. The loan became a permanent deal. “It didn’t take me long to settle down. But over the last 2-3 years, finishing has been a problem. I longed to get on the scoresheet again, so that was all that I focussed on,” Chhangte says.
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During the offseason, he worked with other Mizoram players such as Jeje Lalpekhlua and Lalrindika Ralte. Once back at Mumbai City, he put in extra sessions with the goalkeepers to work on his shooting and finishing. “It’s a lot of different drills at training that have helped. I used to play on the left wing until last year. Ever since I’ve moved to the right, it’s made it a little easier to cut inside with the left foot and curl the ball,” he says.
When Chhangte runs at defenders, he often leaves them for dead. His dribbles are nippy like a roadrunner on steroids and he turns in a flash with the grace of a ballerina. The left foot is lethal and when on target, leaves goalkeepers unsettled during the times it doesn’t blast past them. With the finishing in place, he is now every manager’s dream. Equally at home on the other flank is Thounaojam, who has six goals so far. The duo is at ease switching places and their raw pace makes them a handful for most defences. Together, they’ve provided six assists this season. “We have a competition going on the training pitch on who’ll score more goals. And yes, he’s really good competition,” Chhangte says.
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Mumbai City missed out on a playoff spot last season after finishing fifth. But the win against ATK Mohun Bagan made them the first team to seal a playoff berth this season. They have scored 45 goals so far, one short of the league stage record (46 goals for FC Goa in 2019-20). The goals have been spread around the squad, with Diaz (9), Chhangte (8), Thounaojam (6), Greg Stewart (5), and Noguera (4) all contributing. Besides Thounaojam, the other four have been shrewd signings made by Buckingham before this season. “We have a strong mentality even during training. Jorge and Greg push us really hard. They want us to be nasty and merciless and this has rubbed off on the entire team,” Chhangte says. “They are both over 30 years old and when I see them chasing down every ball, it pushes me to fight even harder for them. They’ve set a great example for the younger lot,” he adds.
On screen, Cristiano Ronaldo has been a constant source of inspiration for Chhangte. “I’ve been watching him since I was in school and his dedication towards the game is immense. After all these years, he still puts in the same level of commitment every single day. And I would like to be like him for Indian football in the years ahead,” he says.
Before the ISL season, Chhangte re-discovered his scoring touch during the Durand Cup. Buckingham too did him a favour by fielding the first team in a tournament that often features the reserves. The familiarity has paid off in the ISL this season. Chhangte’s seven goals in seven games at the Durand Cup did wonders for his confidence, besides also bagging him the Golden Boot. But losing the final to Bengaluru FC has made the yearning for silverware even stronger.
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“It was great preparation for the ISL because we were fighting for a cup instead of playing preseason friendlies. We did miss out in the final, but I hope I can bag multiple trophies this year, both individual and for the team,” he says. “It’s also very important for me to get back on the India team, so that will be another goal I’ll be chasing,” he adds.
Chhangte’s ability was never in doubt, ever since he made his debut for the national team in 2015. But since then, he’s managed just 17 appearances. He maintains a diary where he reflects on life and makes notes on the things he wants to achieve. With the season that he’s having, he’s certain to sign off a number of to-dos on that list.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.
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