When the final whistle blew at the EKA Arena in Ahmedabad on Tuesday, Igor Štimac had a content smile on his face even though his Indian side drew 1-1 with Syria in the Intercontinental Cup, effectively ending the Blue Tigers’ campaign in the tournament.
Going toe-to-toe with a higher-ranked Syria, India took the lead by Narender Gahlot who headed it home from an Anirudh Thapa corner in the 51st minute. However, an equalizer from the spot-kick (78′) by Firas Al-Khatib poured cold water over India’s hopes of a solitary win in the competition. For Štimac, this was his first draw as India manager but for the team, it was a performance filled with “courage and self-confidence” especially after conceding nine goals in the previous two outings.
One win out of five games in the King’s Cup poses a lot of uncomfortable question for the gaffer, mostly regarding his experiments with the team.
“I was not brought here to give just few wins and losses and be nowhere in the middle of somewhere. I warned the nation, the way we choose to play, we will need a lot of sacrifice and suffering,” Stimac said in his post-match press conference.
India’s defeat to Tajikistan (2-4), followed by another disappointing result against DPR Korea (2-5), brought India’s defensive problems to the forefront. Concentration lapses in the midfield and a lack of cohesion in the backline are the stark realities that Stimac must address at the earliest.
The porous wall
A lack of leadership and communication in the backline was a major cause for embarrassment for the Blue Tigers. Greenhorns like Rahul Bheke, Narender Gahlot, Mandar Rao Dessai found it tough to adapt to the tactic of playing out from the back as the defensive core was often caught in two minds.
Lack of defensive solidity led to four second-half goals against Tajikistan. Three of those strikes came from the left-hand side, where makeshift wingback Rao Dessai failed to man-mark Komron Tursonov’s run for the first goal.
He was guilty of providing too much space for Tursonov down the flank to allow the second goal, just like how Jerry Lalrinzuala hadn’t closed his man down quick enough to prevent the fourth. Adil Khan was caught unaware twice during the second and fourth goal, as he failed to anticipate the incoming forwards behind his shoulder.
The Indian defence fell prey to their own shortcomings against DPR Korea as well. Pritam Kotal offered too much space for the substitute Pak Song to swing in a cross for the third goal by Jong Il-Gwan.
The right-back was at fault for the second goal too, failing to stop Sim Hyon-jin from making a run through the channel. The second half goals both took place on the counter, when the entire Indian team left open spaces in a bid to stage a comeback. Left-back Lalrinzuala raising his hand seeking an offside flag instead of tracking his man back to prevent the fourth goal stood out as a glaring mistake.
Although the habit of hoofing the ball upwards to the forwards has reduced, the tendency of the defenders being caught out of position was exploited by opponents throughout the tournament.
— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) July 8, 2019
The midfield muddle
With the new tactic of short passes being enforced, India’s midfield struggled to provide support to the back four in the first two matches of the tournament. Unnecessary fouls, lack of industry, and the inability to cover the channels didn’t help their cause either.
While Rowllin Borges and Brandon Fernandes were given a few chances, they often found themselves on the backfoot trying to figure out their positions in a double pivot, which resulted in further exposing the defence.
Štimac is said to be awaiting the return of Pronay Halder, Raynier Fernandes, and Holicharan Narzary. But, if the match against Syria is anything to go by, the youthful midfield of Anirudh Thapa, Amarjit Singh and Sahal Abdul Samad has provided the most balanced look to the midfield.
Amarjit’s knack for tackling and spreading passes from the deep, Thapa’s ability to press higher up the pitch and breaking defences with his passing and Sahal’s quick feet and decision making on the periphery of the opposition box, made India look as confident as ever with the possession-based game. Adding to that, the incisive pace of Lallianzuala Chhangte and Udanta Singh down the flanks against Syria yielded the most fluid midfield combination under Igor Štimac.
— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) July 14, 2019
The lone ranger
Although captain Sunil Chhetri did score three goals in the tournament — two against Tajikistan and one against DPR Korea — the absence of an understudy has affected the attack, just like it did when he didn’t have his shooting boots on against Syria. Turning 35 in two weeks, the six-time AIFF Men’s Player of the Year is only human and nearing the inevitable end of hanging up his boots.
Jobby Justin was handed his debut by the manager after his breakthrough season with East Bengal, but is yet to click for the national team. The experimentation with Manvir Singh down the right-wing didn’t work out well in the game against DPR Korea. Maybe, which is probably why the ex-Croatia manager said he is keeping a keen eye out for the experience of Jeje Lalpekhlua for the World Cup qualifiers that begin in September.
1⃣8⃣-year-old Narender Gahlot scored his first #BlueTigers 🐯 goal with a thumping header 💥 as India 🇮🇳 played out a 1⃣-1⃣ draw against Syria 🇸🇾.
— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) July 17, 2019
After assessing the team throughout the tournament for achieving “long-term” goals, he said, “We know who we have got. What we have and what we don’t have. And now we can make plans for the future.”
The future is just around the corner for him and his team, as from September 5, the Blue Tigers will battle it out with Qatar, Oman, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh in Group E of the second round of Asian Qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.