India won a corner deep into stoppage time. But the hosts weren’t in a hurry to take the set piece. The movement was laboured as Mohammed Rafique walked to the corner flag. There seemed to be no urgency to improve on the 1-1 scoreline at the Andheri Sports Complex.
St Kitts and Nevis, meanwhile were the ones in a hurry. Even before Rafique could reach, goalkeeper Jeffers Jamal sprinted down to the corner flag and placed a football. It was clear that the Caribbean underdogs wanted the Indians to take it quickly, just so they could get another shot at finding a winner. For them, even a draw would’ve been a miraculous feat. Now, they were going for the kill. “I made a mistake by telling my team to ‘continue the pressure’ when we scored,” says Jacques Passy, head coach of St Kitts. “The message should have been ‘kill India.’”
India were gunning for a 10th win in as many games and looking to gain more confidence ahead of the AFC Asian Cup qualifier against Macau early next month. But the hosts looked lethargic and showed no urgency in finding the winner. You could tell it by the slow rate at which India took its successive corners, and by the St Kitts players encouraging Jeje Lalpekhlua to hurry off the field when he was substituted.
The second half proved to be a period dominated by the islanders, as they started gaining more of the possession and making the sharper runs into the opposition box. By the 65th minute, St Kitts began a series of attacks that defined the game. Trailing 1-0 at that point to Jackichand Singh’s first half opener, a through ball set up striker Bertie Carlos, whose snapshot from the edge of the box needed Subrata Paul to dive to his left to make the save.
The resulting corner was ushered to safety, but in the 71st, another set piece caught the Indian defence napping. A corner delivered deep was looped back into play by Hanley Tiran’s header, and Amory Gvaune swivelled to powerfully volley home his left-footed drive. “We were stung from that corner, and it was disappointing because we work on corners quite a bit,” says India coach, Stephen Constantine.
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St Kitts and Nevis were the third team in the tri-nations tournament along with India and Mauritius, but by far the smallest when it came to population and size. “I was passing by a local railway station on my way here, and I can tell you I saw a train that had almost half our population,” says Passy. “Given that, I’m happy with the performance, but not the scoreline. We wanted to win.”
The visitors’ attacking line had worked constantly to hassle India’s defensive structure, led by skipper Sandesh Jhingan. In contrast, India’s frontline was toothless. Jeje served well as the anchor man up front, but there was no support from Balwant Singh (who scored the winner against Mauritius in the first game), nor from second half substitute Robin Singh (who also scored in the opener).
The two matches though have given Constantine a chance to gauge the attitude and skill of his players, as the team prepares for the Macau game. The squad will be bolstered by the addition of three players from the Bengaluru FC squad that recently won the first leg of its AFC Cup tie against North Korean outfit April 25 Sports Club, including India captain Sunil Chhetri and main custodian Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. For now though, through a team ranked 28 places below India’s 97, the high-flying ‘Blue Tigers’ have been brought back to earth.