Frustration and Indian national football team go hand in hand. Decades have passed but the good days in Indian football, at least at the international level, have come far and few between. In a way, Thursday's frustrating 1-1 draw against Afghanistan in the FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifiers aligns with the history of the team, but it is still infuriating to see an uninspiring side turn up at the Central Republican Stadium in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Similar to their home match against Bangladesh, a late equaliser, this time by Seiminlen Doungel from a corner, salvaged a point for Igor Stimac's India. India have now gone winless in their last four matches with three back-to-back draws and a loss.
From slow start to bad defending in first-half
Stimac and his team were expected to learn from their mistakes against Bangladesh. Afghanistan were supposed to be an easy match for India and with the starting line-up Stimac fielded, it did give an impression that the head coach was in no mood to waste time. Pronoy Halder's name in the playing XI meant he would act as a shield to the centre-backs Rahul Bheke and Adil Khan. Brandon Fernandes and Sahal Abdul Samad would be the providers for Sunil Chhetri in the front. Ashique Kuruniyan and Udanta Singh would run on the wings and provide crosses. But as the match progressed in the first-half, it was Brandon who was sitting deep and trying to play it out from either side of the pitch. On the field, it looked like India will attack from the wings.
India enjoyed the possession in the early parts, but their plan wasn't working at all. To be fair, Brandon was doing a decent job in the midfield, his work-rate was good and the passes were crisp. The problem was the link-up on the wings and complete absence of their midfield. Brandon's quality should've been used in the front, he would've done a lot more playing ahead and putting in those balls in the final third. Once Afghanistan realised that India were too slow and are succumbing to their pressing, they upped the ante.
Mandar Rao Dessai in the left-back position was the weak spot. He was constantly trying to create chances from the left but was failing miserably and was left out of position many times. Afghan players targetted their right side and were finding success in breaching the defence. They knew that counter-attack game is not needed against India when they could simply exploit the holes in the defence. The confidence paid off just before the break. David Najem's pinpoint cross from the right side found Zelfy Nazary who came up with a sublime finish with the ball hitting the roof of the net.
Much better second-half for India
It was Deja vu all over again. Things were very similar to India's previous match against Bangladesh. India falling behind to a lower-ranked team and chasing hard for the equaliser. To his credit, Stimac made the right call to remove Mandar in the second-half. Ashique shifted behind and Farukh Choudhary came on to give his team an extra option in the front. It didn't take long for India to create something significant. Farukh ran past a defender on the left and crossed to the centre where Chhetri's outstretched leg failed to meet the ball right in front of the goal. The ball was kept in play and Chhetri was once again there to meet a cross but his header was punched away by the goalkeeper. Just minutes later, Brandon's corner provided a glorious chance for Chhetri to equalise but the header from a close range, with an open goal, missed the target.
On any other day, Chhetri would've scored one of those chances presented to him. He hardly disappoints when opportunities are given to him to add to his impressive goal tally. But on Thursday, and it does feel odd to say, Chhetri was looking out of sorts. In the first-half, he was nowhere in sight. In the second half, the skipper dropped a bit deeper to create chances and his movements improved, but it was just not his night. Time was running way and Stimac had to employ Manvir Singh and Doungel in the middle.
The clock was beyond 90 minutes and the task to find a goal looked ever so daunting. Just four minutes before the final whistle, Brandon kicked the ball from a corner and Doungel timed his jump to perfection to head it into the goal. It was a beautiful corner from Brandon, the bend he got was a sight to behold and it deserved a goal. Afghanistan didn't do enough and thought they could rely on their defence to emerge winners.
Stimac's philosophy not working?
The back-to-back draws against lower-ranked teams do throw up a lot of questions. Stimac being appointed as head coach was seen as a change from his predecessor Stephen Constantine's direct style of football. The Indian team was expected to not just stick to counter-attacking their opponents and go direct to their forwards for goals. In his first few matches, Stimac showed that the team was moving on from the kind of football they used play. The inclusion of some of the young blood in the midfield hinted that Stimac is serious about his plans. But as seen in the draws against Bangladesh and Afghanistan, the team failed to break the defences by playing out from the back. Both the teams are ranked below India and considering the team's improvement over the last few years, it was expected that this side under a new coach will carve out victories. In both the matches, the set-pieces resulted in equalisers for India.
Chhetri said the team is still far from implementing Stimac's vision, which does make sense now. It's difficult to change the style in such a short time, but if the team is finding it tough to beat even lower-ranked countries then maybe Stimac should construct a Plan B.
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Updated Date: Nov 15, 2019 11:44:23 IST