ISL 2023-24 Player of the Season: Lallianzuala Chhangte, Mumbai City’s man for the big-game

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“Even if you have had the best season of your life, there is always room for improvement, no?” Lallianzuala Chhangte told ESPN at the start of the season when asked what his ambitions was the season.

Last season, Chhangte scored ten times, led Mumbai City FC to the shield, but eventually lost in the semifinals. This season, he’s scored ten times, assisted a further six, finished just a point away from the shield and put in terrific performances at the business end of the season as Mumbai City won the ISL cup for the second time. We’re not sure how he could better being named our ISL player of the season last year, but now we can confirm he hasn’t given his title away: Chhangte is ESPN’s ISL player of the season for 2023-24 as well.

A large part of this season for Mumbai City has been about putting out fires and dealing with tough moments. A massive reason they could do so was Chhangte’s form, especially post the AFC Asian Cup.

It was a forward line that was being disrupted too often for any coach’s liking. Greg Stewart went back home in January. His replacement Iker Guarrotxena started well but then he got injured too. His replacement Jakub Vojtus didn’t really hit the ground running. All this as Jorge Pereyra Diaz’s goals began to dry up. After scoring six goals in six games pre-Kratky, he scored only four in 11 games under the Czech. Where did all that burden fall? On the shoulders of Mumbai City’s talisman and quite simply India’s best player at the moment.

Chhangte has relished the big occasions also. He began and completed the comeback for Mumbai City in the famous semifinal first leg against FC Goa, where they eventually scored three times in six second-half stoppage time minutes, to overturn a 0-2 deficit. After they won the final, the coach and the players unanimously agreed that was the catalyst for their title victory. So, one can say Chhangte was the catalyst for the catalyst. He even scored against Mohun Bagan in the league shield decider at the Salt Lake Stadium.

The best part of Chhangte’s season has been his overall development as a footballer: There was no Stewart or Jahouh this season. There was a squad that was always struggling with injuries at all points of the season. So like in the final, when he had to move into midfield and graft for the cause, and play with a lot more responsibility than he would out wide, he did too.

Chhangte wasn’t a unanimous or an easy choice for the award because two players from the eventual league shield winners made excellent cases for themselves, and weren’t too far behind.

Dimi Petratos

What can be said about Petratos that already hasn’t been? He’s just a difference-maker par excellence. Bagan’s only goal in the final summed up Petratos’s importance to that side. Far too often, Bagan are a side who fight to create something against the run of play. There’s nobody in the ISL who creates things out of nothing better than Petratos does.

His set-pieces are inch-perfect. He has unbelievable vision to pick out a pass from anywhere on the field. His shots from distance wobble so much that they catch goalkeepers out very often. With 10 goals and seven assists this season, Petratos was easily Bagan’s best player this season. Everything good that Bagan do flows through Petratos. The job that Apuia did on him in the ISL final should be commended even more because nothing flowed through him, and Bagan looked a bit lost on the biggest day of the season.

Jason Cummings

In his first year at Bagan, Cummings has seen already the whole spectrum of the Kolkata fanbase. In December, Bagan were going through a torrid time and Juan Ferrando was fighting to keep his job. The Spaniard and his big-money acquisition became the big targets for the fans. When they lost to Odisha FC in the AFC Cup at the Salt Lake Stadium, there loud calls for both Ferrando and Cummings to leave their club. The Aussie, though, has turned it around, and how.

He finished just one ISL goal behind the eventual golden boot winner Dimitrios Diamantakos. He was Bagan’s top-scorer, even though he was never really a guaranteed starter under Antonio Habas until Armando Sadiku’s suspension late in the season.

In addition to how he was strong enough to overcome the boos from his own fans, Cummings showed once again that he is a man for the big occasions. He had come into the ISL on the back of a hat-trick in last year’s A-League grand final, and once again here, scored crucial goals in the league shield decider, the semifinal and the final.

He may not be a fan favourite of Petratos’s ilk yet, but Cummings has certainly won over the Bagan faithful: They’re certainly not asking him to leave their club now.

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