“India really weren’t a threat today against Bangladesh.” That was how Bangladesh coach Jamie Day described his side’s 1-1 draw against India in their Group E World Cup qualifying match at a packed Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata. Instead of building upon their morale-boosting performances against Oman and Qatar, India faltered against a side ranked 85 spots below them, thereby seriously jeopardising their World Cup qualifying hopes.
Igor Stimac made three changes to his side from their last match against Qatar with two of them being forced ones. Stimac had preferred playing a three-man midfield in the previous two matches. However, with Rowllin Borges suspended, the Croat opted to tinker his formation and go with a two-man midfield of Anirudh Thapa and Sahal Abdul Samad.
As things turned out, perhaps Stimac would have been better off sticking with his preferred 4-3-3 formation with either Vinit Rai or Brandon Fernandes providing cover for the defence. Captain Sunil Chhetri returned to the side and led the Indian attack along with Manvir Singh with Bengaluru FC teammates Ashique Kuruniyan and Udanta Singh providing width on the wings.
With Sandesh Jhingan out due to injury, veteran defender Anas Edathodika started alongside Adil Khan in defence. The pair never looked comfortable in possession and was prone to lapses in concentration which nearly cost India a couple of times. However, the duo had a decent match when compared to Rahul Bheke who recovered from a groin injury to start at right back.
The Mumbai-born defender got off to a nightmare start as he was caught in possession by Mohammad Ibrahim just 15 seconds into the match and ended up bringing down the Bangladeshi winger in the box with a clumsy tackle. Luckily for him, referee Masoud Tufaylieh did not award Bangladesh a penalty. Bheke escaped with another poor challenge in the box as it became clear that Bangladesh had identified India’s right side as one to take advantage of.
Speaking after the match, Bangladesh skipper Jamal Bhuyan said that his side was aware that India would struggle in Jhingan’s absence and targeted Bheke and Anas on the counter. "We knew that they had problems in the right-back position and one centre-back slot. So we just waited and attacked in counters using those deficiencies. They missed a big guy in Sandesh. He is a threat in set-pieces. It was good for us that he missed this game,” Bhuyan said.
Bangladesh finally punished the error-prone Indian defence in the 42nd minute from a set-piece. Bhuyan swung in a deep free-kick towards the back post where Saad Uddin managed to get away from his marker Bheke. The usually reliable Gurpreet charged off his line but grossly misjudged the flight of the ball allowing Saad Uddin to head inside the empty goal.
Even as India struggled to get back into the game, Bangladesh repeatedly exposed the Indian defence on the counter. Five minutes into the second half, striker Nabib Ziban was denied by Gurpreet from a one-on-one situation. Four minutes later, Ibrahim struck the crossbar off a mishit cross with Gurpreet once again beaten by the flight of the ball. Ziban came close to doubling his side’s lead once again after lobbing the on-rushing Gurpreet only to see the ball cleared off the line by a backtracking Adil Khan.
With Jhingan out for at least six months, the lack of options in defence is a cause for concern for India. With the exception of Mandar Rao Dessai, none of the defenders inspired confidence with their performance. That Stimac had to call upon Edathodika — who struggled with injuries during the last two ISL seasons and had retired after the Asian Cup — to shore up India’s defence highlights the lack of depth in the centre-back position. India’s shift to an attacking style of play won’t take them to new heights if the defence keeps letting the team down.
One-dimensional going forward
Ahead of the match, Chhetri had expressed confidence that even if Bangladesh’s plan was to man mark him out of the match, his teammates could get the job done without him.
“Their plan is to get as many as possible to mark me. If four people mark me, then they’ll be down to six. If that happens, then people will come to know about the other players like Balwant Singh, Manvir Singh, Udanta Singh, Ashique Kuruniyan and Brandon Fernandes,” he had said.
Bangladesh stuck to their word but the same cannot be said about Chhetri’s teammates. Jamie Day’s men came into the match with a plan in mind and stuck religiously by it. The front three of Ziban, Ibrahim and Saad Uddin were excellent in closing down on Thapa and Sahal thereby not giving the youngsters enough time to pick and play the right passes. Led by skipper Bhuyan, the Bangla midfield formed a formidable wall in front of their defence not allowing the Indian attackers any space between the lines.
With Sahal and Thapa forced back to get the ball, India had no one operating in the hole to feed the likes of Chhetri and Manvir. It seems kind of ironic that in the end, India had to resort to playing long-ball football after former coach Stephen Constantine was routinely ridiculed by fans for doing the same.
Most often than not, Anas and Adil’s searching cross-field passes whizzed over their teammates’ heads or were picked off by the alert Bangladeshi defence. Centre-back Yeasin Khan kept Manvir in check and made a number of crucial blocks to keep India at bay.
Bangladesh effectively forced India to attack through the wings which they stifled by double teaming on the Indian wingers. Even when India could get past the blockade, goalkeeper Ashraful Rana stood tall to deny India every time. Anas almost got India back on level terms at the hour mark but his powerful header from a corner was headed off the line by Ibrahim.
With Bangladesh proving to be tough to break down, Stimac made a series of attacking changes throwing on Brandon Fernandes, Lallianzuala Chhangte and Raynier Fernandes to force the equaliser. Chhetri twice came close to scoring while Sahal tested Ashraful with a powerful strike from distance. India finally had their goal when Adil got the better of Yeasin to head India on level terms. A minute later, India almost completed the comeback only to see Chhetri shoot meekly at Ashraful.
In the context of India’s World Cup qualifying hopes, Tuesday’s draw has been a gut punch. But one hopes that Igor Stimac’s young guns swallow the bitter pill and improve themselves for tougher challenges that lie ahead.
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Updated Date: Oct 16, 2019 10:07:18 IST