FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifiers: Chhetri inspires India to 2-0 win, but issues persist in finishing and linkup play
Sunil Chhetri's brilliance once again came to India's rescue but their ineffectiveness to create clear-cut chances from open play and poor finishing may cost them some other day.
At the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium in Qatar on Monday, India finally snapped their 11-game winless streak to register a vital win over Bangladesh in the FIFA World Cup 2022 and 2023 AFC Asian Cup joint qualifiers.
Indian football's talisman Sunil Chhetri finally snapped his four-game goal drought to provide his team two crucial goals that proved to be decisive on the night.
He’s now got more than Messi! Sunil Chhetri’s double earns the Blue Tigers a 2-0 win in #WCQ and moves him on to 74 international goals – above Lionel Messi and one off entering world football’s all-time top 10 ♂️@chetrisunil11 | @IndianFootball pic.twitter.com/sCCd6BgS9H
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) June 7, 2021
The 2-0 win in Doha has its own meaning apart from the impact it would have on India's qualifying campaign. It was the first away victory for the Blue Tigers in World Cup qualifiers in 20 years. Also, their first win in World Cup qualifiers since Guam victory in 2015. With this result, India are now in third place of their Group E ahead of Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Their last match of the campaign is against Afghanistan and a victory in that match will seal the third spot and take them directly to the next round of Asian Cup qualifiers without playing the play-offs. The third spot is what was expected from coach Igor Stimac's team when the group was made.
Substitutes save the day
After defending deep against Qatar, it was India's chance to impose themselves on their opposition and Stimac opted for a 3-5-2 formation to start off things. Bipin and Udanta Singh were the wingers who constantly stayed up and wide to neutralise a Bangladesh team that defended in numbers with a narrow formation. India predictably had the lion's share of possession but very little to show for it in the first half.
With India failing to breach the defence from the middle, they constantly took the wide route, but Bipin and Udanta were not up to the mark. They failed to get behind the defenders, make use of the spaces, and deliver useful crosses. The team also failed to capitalise on numerous goal-scoring opportunities that were created through set pieces.
At the start of the second half, Bipin and Udanta were replaced by Ashique Kuruniyan and Mohammad Yasir. On the 59th minute, Manvir Singh made way for Liston Colaco. India's gameplay was more exuberant and creative from thereon. And Stimac deserves credit for making the right changes.
The crosses from the left flank, from where Ashique operated, became a constant threat. The substitutes would finally have a telling impact on the match, with Ashique assisting for the first goal and Colaco setting up Suresh Singh Wangjam who provided the cut back to Chhetri to finish off things.
While Indians were wasteful in front of the goal there was nothing profligate about Brandon Fernandes. After being made to sit out of the Qatar match, Brandon was India's chief creative force against Bangladesh. Dictating the play with his razor-sharp incisive passing, long-range distribution, and immaculate set-pieces.
One of the highlights of the match was his defence-piercing through ball to Manvir in the 15th minute. Unfortunately, the striker's first touch let him down. Similarly, Brandon was let down on numerous occasions by some poor finishing by his teammates and at times by some brilliant defending by Bangladesh.
Brandon Fernandes created 8 scoring chances tonight, the most any player has created for India in a game under Igor Stimac. Delivered.#BANIND #BackTheBlues #BlueTigers #IndianFootball Pic Credits - AIFF pic.twitter.com/0ojxaRH0cu
— Aditya Warty (@AnalystAdi) June 7, 2021
In the 35th minute, Chinglensana Singh connected to a corner by Brandon but it was cleared off the line Riyadul Hasan. Subhasish Bose glided a corner off-target while Chhetri headed a free-kick wide of the goal despite being inches away.
All the three India goals in qualifiers before the Bangladesh game had come through Brandon's assists and Monday was another reminder of why the Goan footballer is miles ahead of his competitors.
Another Chhetri rescue act
Chhetri rescuing India has been a recurring act for a while now. And another edition of it took place last night, saving the blushes for India. Chhetri who missed the friendlies in March due to the COVID-19 infection understandably looked a bit rusty at the start. His last competitive match before the Qatar game was in February.
Yet, when it mattered the most, the talisman showed why he is referred to as the captain, leader, and legend by the legion of Indian football fans. Both the goals that he scored were a product of technical brilliance. The first a, a soft sideways header into the net. An inexperienced striker may have messed it up thinking the ball would go for a corner. The second goal had Chhetri facing the right flank when he received the cutback. The Indian captain's excellent first touch allowed him to easily turn towards the goal and find the top left corner.
For those interested in statistics, Chhetri with his two goals surpassed Argentina’s Lionel Messi to become the second-highest active international goalscorer with 74 goals. Cristiano Ronaldo with 103 international goals is the only one ahead of him. And he's doing all of this at the young age of 36.
Relief for Stimac
Rumours back home are rife that Stimac is on his way out, and the only thing that can save his job is a successful qualifiers campaign by Indian standards. The Croatian took up the job after India narrowly missed out on the knockout stage at the 2019 Asian Cup. Naturally, expectations were high. What piled the pressure on him were the tame draws against Bangladesh and Afghanistan in the qualifiers in 2019.
The Monday win, for sure, would have come as a breather. The victory has put India in a position where they are now masters of their own fortunes as far as finishing at the third spot is concerned in the Group E of qualifiers.
There's no doubt, however, that Afghanistan will offer more challenges than Bangladesh. They are physically and technically better and have been making steady progress over the last few years.
One of the biggest criticisms of Stimac has been his constant changing and chopping, something that indicates the coach is still unsure of his best XI. On Monday, his starting XI once again wasn't up to the mark and things started working for him only after he made the changes. Against Afghanistan, India are not expected to be as open in their gameplay as Monday night, but one would hope Stimac now has a better idea of the team he wants for the game which is going to be the most crucial of his tenure as India coach.
Another aspect where India quickly need to improve is their linkup play in the final third and finishing. Despite 74 percent of possession, most of the opportunities that India created were from set pieces and crosses from flanks. And most of the time when opportunities came the desired finishing was missing. India can't afford such ineffectiveness against Afghanistan.
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