AFC Asian Cup qualifier: Sunil Chhetri shows he's an ageless wonder, India come of age
As India gathered into a huddle to celebrate the victory, the crowd at the Sree Kanteerava stadium in Bengaluru witnessed a team that came of age.
"We need to take a look at ourselves and see what and how we can get better. Perhaps, we gave more than we had in the match against Iran and maybe, we can't cope with two matches being played in four days. The GPS suggest that the fitness levels in the second half were considerably down from what we had in the first half but we did not play well in either half. Our stats show that a player gave away the ball 17 times. You cannot do that at any level, and here we are playing at the international level."
A disgruntled and disheartened coach Stephen Constantine had used these words to sum up India's performance against Turkmenistan in March 2016 in the final game of a disastrous 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign that saw India finish rock bottom of their group.
After losses to teams like Guam during the campaign, Indian football was perhaps at it's lowest mark. For once, rankings told the same story as performance levels as India languished at an uncomfortable 174.
Fast forward to 12 June 2017, and coach Constantine's narrative and tone had drastically changed. On being quizzed about his side's fitness levels, the Indian coach remarked: "If it is a battle of stamina, then I will back us to beat anybody. We are very physical and quite strong. We are a fit, hardworking team."
If anyone wondered what had changed, his team showed exactly that on the field against Kyrgyz Republic on Tuesday.
The start was no different from those matches of the past. Kyrgyz Republic, who were technically superior, began by dominating the hosts. India were pinned into their own half and all ways of reaching the opponent's goal seemed blocked as Jeje Lalpekhlua and Sunil Chhetri were isolated upfront in the opening stage. After seven straight wins since that Turkmenistan loss, it once again appeared to be one of those nights for 'The Blue Tigers'.
This is where things differed for India from the past. Often, especially during the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, India wilted under pressure. More often than not, they used to fall apart in matches when put on the mat by the opponents and a recovery of any sort was lacking in their armoury.
On Tuesday, albeit from a desperate clearance, India launched a counter attack. Jackichand Singh drove into the acres of space on the flanks after being released but couldn't deliver a telling pass. It wasn't just a single assault on the opponent goal, but a spark that rekindled the belief, built by seven consecutive wins since the Turkmenistan loss, after a hard start to the game.
The cracks in the visitors' rearguard were evident in the first half, but the Indians didn't appear to be at their places to profit from it, despite finding an outlet to reach the opponent goal. One wondered if India could sustain the pressure the away side were subjecting them to for the 90 minutes, and in the answer to that question was the greatest positive to take from the evening's play.
India stepped up the intensity at the start of the second half, and so did the away side. There were chances for both sides, but the Kyrgyz team had the better ones. However, poor finishing, defenders throwing their bodies on the line, a determined Gurpreet Singh Sandhu under the bar and a bit of misfortune culminated into a bad night for the away side in front of goal.
As the game wore on, the 'White Falcons' seemed to run out of fuel. India started finding more and more gaps in their back line and in the 69th minute, through the utter genius of Chhetri, got the breakthrough. The strike appeared against the run of play, but looking at India's constant and measured endeavours at the opponent goal on the counter since the first half, one can't say it wasn't coming.
The celebrations on the field and in the stands told the whole story. In a game in which India might have trailed by a couple of goals two years ago, they came through rigorous battles to draw first blood. The job though wasn't complete.
Twenty minutes is a very long time in a football match. As soon as the wave of joy receded, captain Chhetri was passing on instruction to his teammates asking them to stay calm and keep the focus. India were on the cusp of a major coup and letting it slip would have put all the hard work to waste.
Constantine had said before the match that the team that wants it more will end up winning. His Indian side were the ones to show a bigger appetite especially in the final quarter of the match. As the Kyrgyz side threw the kitchen sink, India thwarted every attempt. They won most of the second balls, leading to a series of chances to kill the game off. When Chhetri, who did ever so well to create an opening, blasted over in stoppage time, he was seen banging the pitch in disgust.
Failure to take a chance to win the game albeit just a minute before the eventual full time whistle, drew animated reactions from the skipper. It was that unrelenting desire to emerge victorious at any cost that gave India the win in the end.
As the team gathered into a huddle, the crowd at the Sree Kanteerava stadium in Bengaluru witnessed a team that had come of age. It was the first time ever that an Indian team won eight matches in a row. The scenes in Bengaluru gave a feeling that it was just the beginning.
"I'm part of the national team for last 12 years and believe me, it's by far the best performance by us in a long time. After getting battered by our coach at the half time, we bounced back and showed our potential to snatch the win. It was a crucial match for us and we proved ourselves. We are on a good run and hopefully, we'll continue that." Chhetri said after the match.
While the new-found mental strength and stamina were the greatest positives for India on the night, the moment that ensured it didn't go unacknowledged came from the magical boots of Chhetri.
The 32-year-old chased down every ball, fought for every inch without letting the intensity drop throughout the match. This after coming back from a month-long injury lay-off. And when it came to showing his quality he had the guile to conjure up a breathtaking run that almost took the entire Kyrgyz Republic defence out of the equation.
Having gone past three defenders, there would have been a temptation to go all the way, all by himself, but he had the awareness to pick out Jeje who later played him in with a peach of a pass. The move, as brilliant as it was, needed a finish and Chhetri came into his own inside the box. Once he reached the end of the lobbed pass from Jeje, he didn't lash at it, instead just passed it into the net and past the Kyrgyz goalkeeper.
When other strikers across both teams lacked the composure in front of goal, Chhetri emerged peerless.
This was India's third victory over Kyrgyz Republic. The previous win came over a decade ago. The only thing common between the two games was a Chhetri goal.
Some things never change, and a Chhetri masterclass is that constant in Indian football. Without their mercurial forward, India aren't the same team. The struggle to break down Nepal last week was a proof of that.
But fortunately for India, their talisman is an ageless wonder who's far from finished.
"I wasn't happy to be in the stands against Nepal. I want to play, be it a friendly, a qualifier, an exhibition match or five-a-side game. I want to be on the pitch," the 32-year-old declared after the win in Bengaluru.
These words will be music to the ears for Indian fans who would be hoping he goes on for years to come. Chhetri though wasn't looking any further than the next match. He likes to take it step by step. The good thing is, his small steps translate into big strides for Indian football.
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FC Goa produced a commendable performance to keep the side coached by the former Paris Saint-Germain manager at bay for the full duration of the match.
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ISL champions FC Goa will become the first club from the country to play in the continental club competition on 14 April when they take on Qatar's Al-Rayyan.