A smile on Farukh Choudhary’s face set him apart from his teammates in the Indian national team once the final whistle was blown. It was one of those smiles that had a what-could-have-been narrative behind it. In the 95th minute of play against China, Nikhil Poojary smartly brought down a long diagonal ball on his chest and played Choudhary through on goal. The Ambernath-native took it in his stride, composed himself while between two opposition centre backs and took a shot at goal. It wasn’t struck as cleanly as he’d have liked, but forced China’s goalkeeper Junlin Yan to stretch to his right to make the save.
That was India’s last, and best, chance of scoring against a Chinese team ranked 21-places higher than the 97th spot India currently occupies. At full time, the visitors at the Olympic Sports Centre Stadium in Suzhou, China managed to hold onto a goalless draw. It’s a result that will provide Stephen Constantine’s team a morale boost considering the difference in rank and the away conditions the Blue Tigers played in.
“We have shown in the last four years that we are a very difficult team to beat,” Constantine said after the match. “We may not have the quality which some of the other teams in Asia have. But I stand for my team physically and competitively against any team in Asia.”
Playing China was a major step in the national team’s preparation for the AFC Asian Cup in January next year. While the overall result, on paper, was a positive for the visitors, there are certain aspects the head coach will have to address.
In defence, there was a lack of cohesion among the back four. Far too often, and dangerously, passes were misplaced to the midfield, and the defensive positioning gave the Chinese too much space to drive into.
China’s best chance in the first half came when Gao Lin – who had won his 100th cap on the night – was left unmarked on the left flank. A flick-on to the veteran striker had him open up his body to place a shot toward the far post, but for Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s fine save.
In the second half, Lin, again unmarked, hit the post in the 50th minute after striking a low-cross from the right first time, 20 minutes before Wu Lei’s half-volley cannoned off the crossbar. India had done well to hang on to the clean sheet given China’s relentless strides towards goal. In the 77th minute though, the visitors needed Sandhu, skipper Sandesh Jhingan, Anirudh Thapa and Anas Edathodika to keep the ball from crossing the line in a goal-line scramble.
In midfield too the Indians were guilty of giving away the ball cheaply. Anirudh Thapa and Pronay Halder, India’s two central midfielders needed some time to settle down – as they would give away the ball through long passes rather than holding onto possession.
These are the facets though, that Constantine wanted to see about his team before January.
“We came here to give a good performance and the main thing for us was to get used to the standard of Football which we would face in the Asian Cup,” Constantine added.
That’s what made the game against China all the more important since the Dragons themselves have qualified for the continental event. And thought the Indians were defensively stretched, by no means did they fall back to a wholly defensive strategy.
Udanta Singh and Thapa combined well to set up Pritam Kotal in the 13th minute, with the wing-back’s shot needing Yan to pull off a good save. Sunil Chhetri too had a decent chance a few minutes later, but the 34-year-old’s volley off Thapa’s freekick went wide. The skipper on the night Jhingan also had a chance to break the deadlock, only for his 79th minute header through a corner routine sailed over the bar.
At the end of 90 minutes, the English-Cypriot coach could boast of having a team that is difficult to score against. And a team that could, almost, pull off a miraculous win at the death.
But China did expose a few weaknesses in the Indian lineup. And with the Asian Cup still a few months away, that’s exactly what Constantine would have wanted.