India had a field day at the Mumbai Football Arena in Andheri on Saturday, as they raced to a comfortable 4-1 win over Puerto Rico. It was a rare occasion on multiple levels: International football made a return to Mumbai after 61 years; India faced a higher-ranked team after a long time, and a Latin American challenge awaited the Blue Tigers instead of the usual suspects from Asia.
While the hosts' attack made a mockery of their visitors, it was India's all-time leading goalscorer, Sunil Chhetri, who made all the difference. Starting the game in the hole behind striker Jeje Lalpekhlua, Chhetri pulled the strings for the hosts. Deft touches, clever turns, pin-point passes and a lethal finish when required, the Bengaluru FC man was on top of his game. Everything went through him and Puerto Rico never really came to terms with his quality.
When Puerto Rico was dominating the ball at the start of the game, Indian wingers Bikash Jairu, Jackichand Singh and striker Jeje Lalpekhlua were left isolated and seemed out of ideas. But Chhetri provided the calming experience to the battery of Indian attackers, who eventually settled down and came into the game thanks to some excellent hold-up and link-up play from India's leading goal scorer.
"I think a player of Sunil's calibre can play anywhere on the pitch, but for me, his best position is behind the striker. He brings other people into play, he has an eye for goal, can pick out a pass, and most importantly, he works. He is not someone to just walk around the pitch," coach Stephen Constantine said at the post-match press conference.
Constantine was spot on while highlighting Chhetri's excellent work-rate. The attacker was relentless with his closing down and pressing.
India's attacking quartet never allowed Puerto Rico to build from the back after they equalised. That completely fractured the visitors' play, who appeared a disjointed outfit for most parts of the game after conceding. However, the goal itself came much against the run of play. The hosts were struggling to get going and a set-piece just outside the box provided the chance for India to spark their engine. It was Chhetri who provided that quality. His free-kick came agonisingly off the post, but fell to Narayan Das, who made no mistake in putting it away.
Minutes later, India won another free-kick — a mirror image of the earlier one — and this time Chhetri was helped by the very post that denied him the first time, as his free-kick went in off the inside of the post. India had the lead and never looked back.
The magician was at work once again as he turned provider for Jeje next. Chhetri showed great awareness in cushioning a Pritam Kotal cross into Jeje's path who had the simplest of headers to make it 3-1 in India's favour.
"Sunil is the talisman of this side. He's a wonderful player and has been scoring goals for the last 10 years. He's a great leader. I keep joking with him that your time is almost up, but he's having none of that. He keeps himself in great shape and as long as he is fit, he plays," Constantine said, heaping further praise on India's man-of-the-match performer.
Such was Chhetri's influence on the game that had it not been for him, one wonders how things would have panned out. The start was horrible. Constantine had warned his team of the extra quality that Puerto Rico players possess on the ball and the visitors gave an exhibition of the same in the opening exchanges. A nervy Indian team cracked open after just eight minutes as Puerto Rico took the lead.
Fortunately, India managed to fight back, but it was the kind of start that has landed the Blue Tigers in trouble in the past. "We always seem to start slowly. It was the same against Laos and many other games as well. It took time for us to get going. I am happy we managed to come back after going a goal down, but we might not always be able to do that," said the Indian coach.
"You have to look at the average age of this team and the amount of international experience they have. This is a very different stage. It's not like the I-League or the ISL. It's very difficult. So you need some time to get used to the surroundings, to the opposition," he reasoned.
The Englishman shielded his players by citing they were under a lot of pressure to win, as he attempted to justify the sluggish start. "You have no idea how much pressure these players are under. The pressure to win is immense and it becomes difficult sometimes. It is something that these players need to get used to quickly," he added.
Of these comments, it's the last one that is key. During the Asian Championships qualifiers, the pressure is immense. Teams will plan better and try to capitalise on the sluggish starts India is making. It's a problem Constantine needs to address sooner rather than later.
And to be fair, this was not a game that really mattered for the Puerto Ricans. The line-up they put out was devoid of at least five to six key players. Moreover, them missing their flight to Mumbai and arriving a day late didn't help. And though their coach refused to blame the defeat on these hassles, Ignasio Rodriguez, director general of the Puerto Rico Football Federation, did call the game a practice exercise for the team.
Captain Alexis Rivera, who was their most influential player in the first half, was substituted at half-time. It wasn't a tactical change and the intention seemed to be to preserve him for bigger challenges later. It clearly indicated that the visitors had given up on the game by this point. Their second half performance only confirmed it further, as they were merely going through the motions.
That players like Jeje and Jackichand, not the most gifted of aerial footballers, were able to win headers in the box at will showed that they were given far too much time and space inside the penalty box. "This was more of a practice exercise for us. If you're wondering why we kept our first team players out, I must tell you that all our focus is on the Gold Cup. We've never played in it before, and we we're trying hard for that. That's also the reason why we substituted our captain. He's having a few injury concerns and we thought it was best to protect him," said Ignasio Rodriguez, as he translated their coach's thoughts.
So the result might not be as impressive as the scoreline suggests, and the Indian football team has plenty of areas to work upon. They were also fortunate not concede more than just one goal. In the second half, the woodwork came to India's rescue on two separate occasions, after the Indian defence was opened up by two rather regulation passes. Had even one of those strikes gone in, we might have had a different game.
India's over-reliance on Sunil Chhetri was also exposed in the end, as their attacks dried up after he was taken off. Although it could be said that India took the foot off the pedal after being 4-1 up, the hosts need to find other ways to score goals rather than rely solely on Sunil Chhetri's brilliance.
Their central midfield also continues to struggle with consistency. Constantine swapped Pronay Halder with Rowlin Borges at half-time, suggesting the coach is still trying to work out the best combination in that area of the pitch.
But considering a team can only play the opponents they are given, India did a very good job on the day. But tougher challenges await, and not every time will they face a team who had missed a flight, then get overwhelmed by the occasion, and then decide to simply go through the motions.
The win will certainly reflect very well on India's Fifa rankings, but Constantine must ensure they don't forget about the things that went wrong. He should also ensure they don't get carried away by the delightful football they played against a team that looked like middle-aged corporates playing for charity, especially in the second half.