NorthEast United FC's Lalengmawia was hands down the most impressive youngster in the recently concluded Indian Super League (ISL) 2020-21 season.
Last season, Lalengmawia impressed after being drafted into a struggling NorthEast United team in the second half of the campaign.
The 20-year-old from Mizoram consolidated his reputation this season, helping Khalid Jamil's Highlanders reach the semi-finals. He also bagged the coveted ISL Emerging Player of the Year award for his stellar performances.
Whenever NorthEast took the field this season, Lalengmawia, wearing the jersey No. 45, was the focal point of the Highlanders' midfield, eclipsing more experienced and star names in the squad.
As a first-choice central midfielder, Lalengmawia’s pick of his shirt number has been a hot topic of discussion in the commentary box and amongst fans.
Higher numbers like 45 are generally assigned to reserve players and Lalengmawia, popularly called Apuia, had the option to choose a more conventional number to play in.
“45 is my favourite number because of one man — Mario Balotelli. I like him a lot and admire his confidence. He never panics,” Lalengmawia told the All India Football Federation (AIFF).
Italian striker Mario Balotelli, though remembered mostly for his short temper and off-field antics, was at one point the most highly-rated youngster in world football.
Before his career went on a downward spiral, Mario Balotelli, by the age of 23, had won the Serie A, the UEFA Champions League and the Premier League. Top players often spend their careers to accumulate such an impressive trophy collection.
As a defensive midfielder, Lalengmawia’s role and playing style is poles apart from the former Manchester City forward. But the Indian youngster has picked up two of his hero's positive traits - unwavering confidence and an eye for the spectacular.
Like Balotelli, Lalengmawia is fearless when in possession of the ball. The Mizo player has built up quite a reputation for keeping hold of the ball and picking out defence-splitting passes even when under intense pressure from opposition players.
Though his position doesn't make goal-scoring a priority, Lalengmawia also seems to share Balotelli's penchant for scoring spectacular goals.
The quality was on show when Lalengmawia scored his maiden ISL goal against Kerala Blasters FC. His world-class piledriver from range helped NorthEast United beat Kerala Blasters FC 2-0 in their final league phase match, consequently securing a semi-final berth for the Highlanders.
Incidentally, Mario Balotelli is also known for scoring long-range screamers.
Lalengmawia also captained NorthEast United in two ISL 2020-21 matches, making him the youngest captain ever in ISL history.
After Lalengmawia’s eye-catching performances this season, it hardly came as a surprise when Indian football team head coach Igor Stimac named the midfielder in his 35-man probable squad for the upcoming joint FIFA World Cup 2022 and AFC Asian Cup 2023 qualifiers in Qatar.
"While playing the ISL, I got a message from Stimac. I was very happy and surprised. He told me that he has chosen me as a probable for the camp and how I can help the team. I am happy and will work hard to pay him back for his trust in me,” Lalengmawia recalled.
The youngster, however, understands very well that being chosen for the national camp isn't quite the same as making it to the final squad.
"I haven’t achieved anything yet. I have been called as a probable and haven’t been selected. I’ll work hard and do my best to make the country proud,” Lalengmawia said.
“It will be difficult to compete against the best players in the country and there will be pressure but I need to work on that. It’s all about competing against each other in football. I will have to work harder than ever,” he added.
With the ISL out of the way, Lalengmawia, who represented the Indian junior team at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in 2017, has his eyes firmly set on earning himself his maiden senior team call up and hopefully an India debut in the coming months.