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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Bala Devi void hurts India as Chinese Taipei looms at the Asian Cup

All time scorer’s absence is something the team will have to live with during Sunday's their must-win Group A encounter of the AFC Women's Asian Cup.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Mumbai |
Updated: January 23, 2022 7:03:46 am
The Indian women's football team gear up for Chinese Taipei encounter. (Twitter/Indian Football Team)

PERHAPS, BHAICHUNG Bhutia was talking from personal experience.

In 2011, when India were gearing up for their first men’s Asian Cup appearance after more than three decades, the former captain watched from the sidelines as he recuperated from an injury. Bhutia, the country’s highest goal-scorer and a highly influential player in the dressing room, ultimately played for just a handful of minutes in the final group-stage match but his experience was sorely missed as India bowed out without making an impact.

Now, as the women’s team returns to the continental stage after nearly 20 years, they find themselves in a similar predicament. India are without their star striker and the focal point of their attack, Ngangom Bala Devi, the country’s all-time top scorer with 52 goals in 58 appearances.

Without the former Glasgow Rangers forward, India lacked sharpness in attack as they were held to a frustrating goalless draw by Iran in their Asian Cup opener on Thursday. It was a dominant performance and India created 24 scoring opportunities, three times more than Iran. But only five of those were on target and none were good enough to find the back of the net.

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“Maybe, looking back, the experience of a Bala Devi up front may have been handy,” Bhutia was quoted as saying by the All India Football Federation. “But injuries are part and parcel of football, and I am confident the others will fill in the void.”

Sunday’s match against Chinese Taipei will virtually be a make-or-break situation. The tie will be crucial in determining the team that will finish the group stage second behind 8-time Asian champions China, who looked in imperious form in their 4-0 win over Taipei on Thursday. The top two teams of the three groups and two best third-placed sides will progress to the quarterfinals.

Devi, the first Indian woman to score in a European league, had suffered an ACL injury while playing for Rangers last season. She returned to India to complete her rehab, thus bringing an end to her stint with the Scottish club and also ruling her out of the Asian Cup.

The 31-year-old’s absence, however, complicated the national team’s preparation for the Asian Cup. One of the three Indian women to play overseas in recent years – two others being goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan (West Ham United) and right-back Dalima Chibber (university football in Canada) – Devi’s influence on a young squad, with an average age of roughly 23 years, goes beyond the playfield.

In her absence, chief coach Thomas Dennerby has built the attack around Manisha Kalyan, Pyari Xaxa, Sandhiya Ranganathan and Grace Dangmei. Against Iran, the quartet routinely got into scoring positions and made timely moves to get behind the defence. At times, they were plain unlucky but on the occasion of an opportunity, the forwards lacked the composure to finish off a move.

A lot of this can be put down to a lack of experience and consistent match time. After Dennerby took over last August, the AIFF organised a prolonged training camp and friendly matches to prepare this team for the Asian Cup. The pandemic scuttled the team’s plan to play a few more matches just before the tournament in a bid to get them into the groove. But no number of friendly matches could prepare them for the nerves and pressure that are by-products of a big tournament.

This was visible in the opening 20 minutes against Iran, when the Indian players seemed a little overwhelmed by the occasion, giving their opponents, placed 25 places below them at 70th in the world rankings, freedom and space to mount multiple attacks.

Once the team was settled, they controlled the match much better. Dennerby would be reassured with the confidence his players showed on the ball and the smart running they did off it. The only thing that eluded them that evening was calmness in the attacking third.

Those who have seen the team play attest that Xaxa, Dangmei and the rest of the forwards can offer a lot more than what they did against Iran. Yet, Dennerby might be tempted to shake things up, as he hinted after the first game. “I think we have a solid defence, and defended well whenever they tried to counter-attack. A few tweaks to our attack, and we will be ready for our next opponents,” the Swede said.

A win against the world number 39 Taipei will all but assure the 55th-ranked India of a place in the last-eight, a draw will keep them in contention to at least sneak through as two of the best third-placed teams assuming Taipei will beat Iran while a defeat will severely dent their chances.

The last time India played Taipei, in a friendly match last October, they won 1-0, with forward Renu scoring the goal that proved to be the winner. When the two sides meet on Sunday, the onus once again will be on the attacking quartet to make sure Bala isn’t missed.

India vs Chinese Taipei, 7.30 pm, Live on Eurosport

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