Sharjah: Incessant running, a deep desire to press the opponents and quick, sharp passing moves characterised India's play at the AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) until the Blue Tigers lost their way in the 1-0 defeat to Bahrain in Sharjah on Monday that put an abrupt end to their campaign.
India had announced their arrival in the Asian Cup with a 4-1 win over Thailand in their opening fixture and backed that up with an equally impressive performance against UAE in their next game that India were unlucky to lose.
Stephen Constantine's men were seen as the surprise package in the competition thanks to their eye-catching, energetic play that had ruffled some feathers. However, on Monday India failed to produce that brand of football and instead dished out a pale, timid show that was eventually punished by a 90th-minute penalty from Jamal Rashed to send Bahrain through at their expense.
There were two major factors that played a part in India failing to produce the kind of performance they surprised everyone. Firstly, Anirudh Thapa, whose energy provided India with the bite in midfield, started from the bench against Bahrain. India gave their opponents a bit too much respect than required by playing Rowlin Borges, a more defence-minded player in his place. Secondly, India paid for focusing more on the points table than their performance in the last game.
Constantine revealed that Thapa had a minor back injury that convinced him to go with the fresher legs of Borges in the final game. However, Borges failed to have the impact that Constantine had forecasted and couldn't exert himself in the midfield.
"Thapa had a back injury and he looked tired.We thought Borges had fresh legs. Borges is one of the best passers of the ball in India and he can create things in terms of getting the ball out to Udanta (Singh) or Halicharan (Narzary). That didn't go as planned," Constantine admitted after the game.
India had lost momentum in the game against UAE when Constantine had replaced Thapa with Borges, and against a well-organised team like Bahrain, the writing was always going to be on the wall.
"When I checked India's line-up, I realized that India were playing with two defensive midfielders. I think Borges is a more defence-minded player than Thapa. It was clear that India were going to play on the counter-attack or with the long balls with just four players. I think it worked to our advantage a bit as it allowed us to play an extra midfielder in attack," Bahrain coach Miroslav Soukup told reporters after the game.
It is easier to say that Constantine got it wrong with his team selection, but with small niggles and injuries to players like Thapa, India had very little left in the tank after the first two games.
Despite a bit of fatigue, India's bigger problem was that they went into the game with a muddled mind. Knowing that a draw would be enough made the player choose safety over adventure. This reflected in the way India pressed against Bahrain. It wasn't as intense as in the first two games, as the team worried too much about falling behind in this crucial encounter. Chhetri had hailed the players' bravery after their win over Thailand, commending how his players pressed without fear. On Monday, the pressure of the points table and the weight of the impending history made India lose track of their strengths.
India dropped too deep too early in the game and allowed Bahrain to get closer to the Indian goal. Once Bahrain seized control of proceedings, it was too difficult for India to hold the ball and slow the pace of the game down with their limited skill and composure on the ball.
Chhetri admitted after the game that his team slipped into an ultra-defensive mode with the finish line in sight and were made to pay for showing a lack of courage on the ball.
"We needed to show more guts to keep the ball and needed to calm down because they were desperate and they had just two men behind the ball. So if we had kept the ball and made four passes we would have been two versus two. We probably didn't think at that time. We just kept defending and everything wrong that could have happened today, happened," a dejected Chhetri said.
India's inexperience at the highest level made the difference in the end as Bahrain piped India to a place in the Round of 16. India's twin defeats will serve as a big lesson for the Blue Tigers in the future, but the agony of missing out on the knockout berth by a whisker despite having performed well enough to warrant a place will hurt for some time.
India impressed everyone in the UAE with their new-found identity of a relentlessly aggressive and hardworking team. Unfortunately for the Blue Tigers, it went missing when it mattered the most.
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Updated Date: Jan 15, 2019 16:10:26 IST