After playing for 93 minutes in Bengaluru’s first win of the season on Sunday against Chennaiyin, scoring a goal in the process, Sunil Chhetri was a shadow of himself in India’s World Cup qualifying 1-1 draw against Afghanistan on Thursday. Although his jadedness in front of goal was masked by Seiminlen Doungel’s dramatic late equaliser, eyebrows were still raised.
Much of the Indian lineup seemed burnt out after the opening quarter of the match, which resulted in Afghanistan taking the lead before the half-time whistle. Adding that with the sub-par performance of the talismanic 35-year-old, a question arises — were the players fatigued from the start?
That assumption can be true, as seven players from India’s 25-man squad for the World Cup qualifier in Tajikistan were going at it at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru on Sunday night. Out of that seven, apart from Chhetri, the likes of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Rahul Bheke and Ashique Kuruniyan started against India’s neighbours just four days after in the freezing temperatures of Dushanbe, more than 2000 kilometres away from India.
Apart from the starting quartet of Bengaluru, the three others involved on Sunday were, Chennaiyin’s Anirudh Thapa and Lallianzuala Chhangte, and Bengaluru’s Nishu Kumar.
Ahead of their World Cup qualifier, manager Igor Stimac had complained, “We need to rest our players because most of them played their last game just a few days back. After travelling, the players need to rest for at least 40 hours to get ready for the game.”
“The journey and flight itinerary is a tedious one. We have reached Dubai last night and have a morning training session here this morning. We are leaving for Dushanbe this evening only and reaching there tomorrow,” he had said on Tuesday.
Apart from the tiredness resulting from the poor fixture scheduling, India had the uphill task of playing on the unfamiliar astro-turf of the Central Republican Stadium in Dushanbe, in almost sub-zero temperatures. Expecting a win from such an away trip without adequate preparation would have been probably too far-reaching for even the most optimist fanatics.
Not surprisingly, the Croatian tactician had earlier voiced his concern about the lack of time provided to the national players amidst the running of the Indian Super League (ISL) before the October-clash against Bangladesh.
Speaking on the eve of the Bangladesh game, Stimac had said, “I am very worried about the November camp. We are going to try everything possible to find a way with ISL people as it does not look promising for us right now.”
The organisers of the highest-tier of domestic football, Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL) hadn’t taken it too kindly. An official had retorted claiming that along with the national team director Abhishek Yadav, the 52-year-old Croatian had been kept in loop about the scheduling and even given explanations as to why it was impossible to postpone the fourth round of the ISL.
“It was discussed and agreed upon that since the ISL schedule is out and a lot of planning goes into the whole process of organising games like broadcasting, booking of stadiums and lodging of players, it is not possible to give a longer break before the November games and FIFA rules will be followed,” the official was quoted as saying by IANS.
The war of words had continued last month with the official even labelling Stimac’s approach of ranting to media as “unprofessional.”
Now, with just three points from four games, India find themselves fourth in Group E of the World Cup qualifiers, with doubts still remaining about the team’s chance conversion and ability to dominate the centre of the park. Had it not been for Adil Khan’s last-gasp header in the 88th minute against Bangladesh, Stimac’s side would have fallen to their second defeat last month at the Salt Lake Stadium itself.
“It’s difficult to expect great results now. But, last two games, we came back in the last minute. Now we are the team that never gives up. We are becoming a team with character, with charisma. The team which is pushing up when the result is negative and that’s what makes me proud as a coach,” said Stimac in a post-match press conference in Dushanbe.
Whether the players will continue to suffer due to their lack of cohesion and fatigue remains to be witnessed in Muscat, Oman when they take on the second-placed side on November 19. But as things stand, chances look too bleak for qualification after the draws against the neighbours, as India has the Sisyphean task of finishing second in their group by a margin greater than the runners-up of three other groups.
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