After quite an extra-ordinarily chaotic first quarter, a slightly jumpy Indian team settled down to do what they do well — score goals, a good eleven at that against hosts Oman in their opening match of the Asian Champions Trophy at the Sultan Qaboos Complex in Muscat.
The 11-0 scoreline may not get fans overly excited looking at the level of competition, but the first quarter, goalless at that, showed a certain depth in the Indian squad to re-arrange their structure, keep playing with finesse and keep Dilpreet Singh slightly away from the melee that was causing major road blocks inside the Oman defensive area.
The youngster playing his 31st international match showed lovely positional sense and a perfect pair of hands to notch up his and the tournament’s first hat-trick. Eight Indian players got onto the scoresheet showing the thrust that India deployed in the last three quarters; four goals in the 2nd, two in the 3rd and five in the last quarter summing up India’s performance.
For Oman, who could look back to the 2013 Asian Champions Trophy when they allowed India to score only three goals, an improvement in defensive structural play didn’t mean that they had the patience to constantly stand ahead of the Indian forwards. They did everything right, spreading play on the flanks and in fact even coming close to scoring twice in the 1st quarter, but the relentless pressure and pacy build-ups from the Indian midfield ensured that goals kept coming up as the Omani defence slowly disintegrated.
Oman coach Tahir Zaman — one of Pakistan’s true legends and a member of the side which played two World Cup finals in 1990 and 1994 (the edition Pakistan won) — knew what he was up against. “Against India, it’s always a case of patience and an aligned defence at the back,” he said. “But the moment you give space, they will exploit as they have speed.”
Lalit Upadhyay, a player who can wear two hats – speedy forward and an efficient link-up in the midfield, personified the wonderful mix that a team constantly requires when creating chances. He scored only one goal, the opening one but he intelligently mixed up runs into the Omani striking circle with some subtle taps that others exploited to the hilt. Lalit is a thinking player, but needs a certain role in the team. With Indian captain Manpreet Singh at times pulled into defensive positions, Lalit is the player to provide fast breaks and also man the gap between the forwards and the midfield.
Another player to impress was Hardik Singh making his senior international debut. He overlapped well and showed lovely set of skills in the opposition half. Sterner tests against stronger teams will show his exact mettle. But against Oman, he held his own and more importantly didn’t show any sign of nerves.
Changes were made in the overall play in the 2nd quarter as India came through the middle with Manpreet, Lalit and Chinglensana searching for gaps between a 6-8 man Oman defence. It was finally Manpreet who cleared the way, set up Sumit who tapped it forward for Lalit to fire in a whopper for the opening goal in the 17th minute. With the gates finally open, goals came in the 22nd, 23rd and 30th minutes with Harmanpreet Singh firing in a penalty corner. At the break India led 4-0.
Not too much resistance came in the 3rd or 4th quarter from Oman. In fact, even though Oman only let in two goals in the 3rd quarter, India were clearly playing with rhythm and also using the flanks to good effect. Akashdeep Singh, who usually plays on the left flank, did some good work on the right, hammering in a few good hard hits and also using his skills to frustrate the Oman defence, who by the time the 4th quarter began were looking tired.
Gurjant Singh and Dilpreet scored in the 3rd quarter even though the former would regret a few misses in front of the Oman goal. For Oman, their goalkeeper deserves a pat on the back as he saved around eight chances that looked like sure-shot goals.
Defensively, even though in the 3rd and 4th quarter Oman didn’t really create much up front, Surender and Jarmanpreet Singh waded into attack very effectively. Surender used the left flank while Jarmanpreet powered away on the right. It was Surender’s ingenuity in creating on the line that paved the way for both Gurjant and Akashdeep to get in the goals.
Gurjant picked on a lovely through that was flicked between the defenders legs and then playing on the line, drawing the entire defence towards him, Surender in the last second flicked the ball into the centre of the circle where Akashdeep simply had to whack the ball in.
By the end of the 3rd quarter, India had 19 shots on goal, 41 circle entries and over 80 percent possession. More importantly, they used the midfield to create chances. In matches like the one against Oman, losing structure is easy as most forwards and midfielders would want to dodge and score, losing momentum when the defence provides a solid back six on the line. It’s easy to tense up in front of the goal, go deeper into one’s own territory and try and create moves.
But assists provide confidence and players like Jarmanpreet, Surender, Manpreet, Lalit would feel confident that the play was according to a plan and not just rush in and bang the goals. Goalkeeper PR Sreejesh didn’t get much of the play and aptly the management brought in Krishan Pathak in the 3rd and 4th quarter.
India’s penalty corner run was good if not impressive. They scored five out of eight opportunities. But the goals need to come against better prepared teams and faster runners. The variation, if that was one, off the 7th PC was breathtaking. Harmanpreet took a powerful flick and Chinglensana thrust his stick out in the mid-zone to deflect the ball in for the 9th goal. And then that wonderful moment when Mandeep in the 57th minute dribbled, dodged and danced past four players to set up Dilpreet’s hat-trick would do a lot for Mandeep’s confidence.
Irrespective of the opposition, getting in the goals is a major task. Also impressive was the carefree and relaxed way the team played involving the entire squad in the build-ups with substitutions fast and apt. Coach Harendra Singh has a lot of work to do to ensure that the team gets back into a solid work ethic in the remaining matches and be focused on the target which is to win the Asian Champions Trophy. Winning would be the perfect formula for a team driving itself to perform at home during the World Cup.
After the Jakarta Asian Games, the team has been under a lot of scrutiny, the spotlight constantly on the players, questions being asked of them whether they have it in them to perform with consistency on the world stage. Too many questions and confusion when none of this back room talk should have occurred has been easy fodder for the media. But in the victory against Oman and in the matches up ahead, Harendra and his team have a good chance to clear the muddied waters.
Updated Date: Oct 19, 2018 10:19:26 IST