FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017: India deliver anxious performance before suffering fans in historic opener
India's inability to make situations count stood out. Perhaps that was a consequence of opening day nerves. Until then, we can go back to hoping for drinking water at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Monday.
The build up to the FIFA U-17 World Cup had been about the smooth process overseen by the Local Organising Committee while doubts persisted about the Indian team. On Friday night, the situation flipped.
The VVIP presence, which included the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, caught the organisers unawares with drinking water proving to be elusive. Schoolchildren, numbering around 25,000, suffered throughout. The chaos wrought by poor management ensured that one could not rely on basic services.
That was the surprise. Not the Indian team. For the most part, anyway. Most reliable observers had expected the side to come up way short against the United States. The scoreline may not accurately reflect that but the pre-match estimates were not wrong. India were outclassed.
The doubts no longer persist. There were moments, yes, when the host threatened to make an impact. But the gap in quality was evident throughout. It was only when tiredness and complacency set in that the US allowed India greater opportunities.
The match had its defining moment in the 84th minute when Anwar Ali’s shot came off the crossbar. It was the closest India came to scoring all evening. But as if that was not unfortunate enough, in the same sequence of play, Andrew Carleton took advantage of a quick breakaway to seal the victory. The talented midfielder celebrated by drawing his thumb across his neck. It was brutal.
But by the end of the encounter, there was a sense of relief. It could have been worse. For the beginning held more ominous overtones. India played a 4-5-1 setup with Aniket Jadhav cutting an isolated figure in the front. The US, of course, chose a more attacking system. Skipper Josh Sargent, Ayo Akinola and Tim Weah were the three front men in the 4-3-3 formation with Andrew Carleton playing as a quasi-forward too.
With India failing to keep the ball, wave after wave of pressure followed. The wastefulness in possession was staggering. Coach Luis Norton de Matos later called his players ‘shy’. Such was the buzz around the stadium — the official attendance stood at 46,351 — that it was impossible to shut it out.
But while the US took the challenge on, the Indian players seemed overawed by the occasion. When they won the ball, they almost seemed surprised to be in possession. Jitendra Singh and Sanjeev Stalin particularly stood out in the opening half hour for their inability to choose the best pass. Centre-back Jitendra finally suffered for his indiscretions when one of his misplaced passes affected his concentration and he responded by fouling Sargent in the box. The resulting penalty dampened the mood as US went ahead.
But goalkeeper Dheerej Singh kept India in the game. He was identified as “exceptional” by US coach John Hackworth. The rest of the side gradually came out of the shadows as well. Jadhav did not have much support but he demonstrated impressive work rate and a desire to make things happen. He was also responsible for India’s first shot on target, albeit it was a tame effort.
If there was some hope afforded by the 0-1 scoreline at half time, it was quickly snuffed out in the second half as a deflection off Anwar Ali carried Chris Durkin’s shot into the net, following a corner. Deflation spread around the stadium. But then the warm Weather Conditions began to have their say.
The US looked leggy in the last half hour. This allowed India to finally threaten the opposition. Komal Thatal was presented with a strong chance when he took advantage of confusion in the American half. With only the onrushing goalie to beat, an off-balance Thatal lobbed the ball over the net from the edge of the box.
But of course, the truly heartbreaking moment was reserved for the end when Anwar Ali could only find the crossbar from close distance. Within seconds, India went from a possible 1-2 to 0-3. The host may have grown into the game but an inability to make situations count stood out. It is not just a question of experience but of an inherent understanding of the game – what some call intelligence. It does not reflect well on the coach when a side fails to get its basics right.
Perhaps that was a consequence of opening day nerves. We will find out on Monday against Colombia. The performance on Friday did enthuse one Indian fan enough, though, as he ran onto the pitch after full time and even got a chance to greet the players. He later ran away and disappeared in the crowd, escaping the clutches of security. His enthusiasm for the sport, on a day when fans were short-changed, might have been the highlight of the evening.
Should we expect better from this Indian side? Perhaps the second game will not give birth to the anxieties which marked its display against the US. There could have been a goal but there was none on Friday. If that changes against Colombia, it would represent a tangible change but one is still waiting to make their mind up about India.
Until then, we can go back to hoping for drinking water at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Monday.
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