Sharjah: As an Indian journalist, I was showered with congratulatory messages every time I greeted a fellow foreign scribe here in the UAE. "Didn't know India were that good," was a standard response with few gesturing 4-1 with their hands before giving me a thumbs up.
India were only meant to make up the numbers in the UAE, but a week into the Asian Cup, the Blue Tigers have surprised everyone.
Even in the defeat against UAE, India won many admirers with their performance including the UAE players who made sure to pat Chhetri on the back while passing behind him in the mixed zone as the Indian skipper spoke to a large group of journalists that had many more than just Indians.
Going into the final round of matches, India are more likely to advance to the next round than bow out — a situation every Indian would have happily accepted at the start of the campaign. It could have been even better for Stephen Constantine's men had they shown more potency in front of the goal against UAE in their previous game.
The aspect of India's game that has appealed to everyone irrespective of the result has been their speed, energy and stamina that has seen them run tirelessly on the pitch, eventually causing big problems for the opponents.
"The speed of the Indian players caused us many problems. We struggled to advance on the pitch due to their energy and I had to make certain adjustments to our system to be able to get closer to our goal," UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni said after the match.
India's work rate in the competition has been staggering. The game against Thailand that India won 4-1 saw the Indian players produce one of their best physical outputs for four years.
"Our best outputs in the last four years were against Myanmar in that first qualifier and the match against Thailand last week," Indian team's strength and conditioning coach Danny Deigan told reporters on the sidelines of team's practice session in Sharjah on Saturday.
India have been building up for the Asian Cup for over a year now, but their pre-tournament preparations began much earlier than the other teams. India were the first team to arrive in the UAE for the Asian Cup and have been in the country since 20 December 2018. Deigan feels the early arrival can be credited for India's fast start in the competition.
Some of India's physical output figures in the Asian Cup have made for good reading and have impressed Deigan.
"Our players cover about 10-12 km in a game in which 2-3 km is high-speed running. That's the quick pressing up and down. There's about 30 sprints per player and about 140 accelerations and decelerations which we do during a sharp change of direction in small spaces," the Australian sports scientist revealed.
"We know what they do in a day, we know what they do in a week. That's how we get them best prepared physically," he added.
Deigan along with the other members of the medical team utilised the time in UAE before the competition to simulate the workload India would face during the actual competition through a planned schedule of training sessions. It has thus helped the players to understand their bodies better.
"We know what they are going to perform roughly in a game physically. So we pretty much simulated what playing in the Asian Cup feels like, so the players know what to expect," Deigan said
The Australian feels some of India's young wide players have made drastic improvements in their physical outputs and that has greatly impacted India's performances so far at the Asian Cup. The physical training involves "preparing for the worse." Deigan reveals the team have sessions designed in a way to enable them to deliver the best physical performance in different match situations.
"We work on it (maintaining intensity). Sometimes we do our hard work at the start of the session, sometimes we do it in the middle, and sometimes we do it at the end when they are under fatigue. We definitely work on having them perform at every stage of the game," the Australian divulged.
Deigan and his team also play a role in assisting tactical planning. Their role is to pass the information about the players' physical output and advice if a player would be able to perform or reach a certain level of physical output necessary to play in a particular position or role. Obviously, Deigan is not the final say in the tactical decision-making process, but the information he provides could make or break a game plan.
"The physical output numbers don't always correlate with the result, but they do give us a good indication of where players can best be used tactically and can give us an indication of what we need to do around training to get them physically fit to get them to give their best at the next game at a certain position," Deigan explained.
"We look at physically what they can output and where they can influence the game. That can be part of the reason (for the manager) to change. That's the part of my job to provide the manager with the players in the best possible condition and the information to really do his job," he added.
According to Deigan, the results in women's football are directly in co-relation with the result but feels the men's game is a bit more advanced and many more factors impact the result that just physical outputs. The Australian, however, is not responsible for the actual result but must make sure the players are in the best possible physical condition to tackle the next challenge.
"My job is not just to increase the output but making sure the players are prepared to produce the output they are required to win games. But obviously the better they can manage this output is the better they can perform technically and tactically as well," the Australian stated.
India face Bahrain in a virtually do-or-die match in Sharjah on Monday with the team needing at least a draw to secure their passage through to the next round. Bahrain will present a similar physical challenge like the UAE. A positive result will take India to the next round with South Korea, Jordan or China likely to be their opponents. With the possibility of playing 120 minutes in those games, India's physical aspects will be fully tested, but if Deigan is to be believed, there's no reason to worry.
"We have no problem against any team in terms of physical output. We can handle 120 minutes and also play against Korea, no problem," the Australian asserted before signing off.
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Updated Date: Jan 13, 2019 14:36:20 IST