India's heavy defeat against UAE puts focus on Igor Stimac's work; other takeaways
It wasn't the defeat but the manner in which India surrendered to UAE which raises a question on the work coach Igor Stimac has done so far with the team.
What began with a sense of excitement and expectation, ended with an embarrassing defeat against UAE for India in the international friendly.
India's international friendlies against Oman and UAE marked the return to international football for the Blue Tigers after a long gap of 15 months. Coach Igor Stimac included nine fresh faces in his squad as the boys left for Dubai with an eye on the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers in June.
After a poor first half against Oman in the first match where they conceded through an own goal, India hit back with an inspired showing and drew the match against a team ranked 81st in the FIFA charts as compared to Stimac's boys who are 104th.
High on confidence, India took on UAE on Monday. This time, the result was 6-0 in the favour of the Emiratis.
There's no shame in losing a game of football, especially when it's a friendly. A 6-0 defeat to a 74th ranked side could also be digested, but not in the fashion that India lost. Monday's result was the biggest loss for the men's team since the 9-1 loss to Kuwait in 2010 and felt like we time travelled to the days when insipid performances were not unusual.
Stimac project under scanner
The performance of the boys on the night against UAE was so spiritless that the opposition, physically and technically stronger, didn't really have to play to their potential to beat the Indian defence.
Every move sliced through the backline like a knife through butter. The attacking moves by UAE forwards were welcomed with gaping holes left by Indian defenders who appeared clueless under the pressure.
On top of it, every counterattack that India launched was doused immediately, after just a couple of moves, by the UAE midfield. The attackers struggled the whole night to shrug off the defenders and midfielders were rarely able to control the ball or the tempo of the game.
All this puts the focus on the work Stimac has done with the team since his appointment in 2019. In his own words, Stimac was brought in to "change" the way India played under predecessor Stephen Constantine. The focus was on making the transition from a long-ball style to a more technical and attacking approach. There's no doubt, some progress has been made on that front. But the question is at what cost?
The last time India played UAE, they were more than able to make a game of it. Sunil Chhetri and Co were relentless in their attacks and hit the framework thrice in the 2-0 defeat in the 2019 Asian Cup. Had fortune favoured India on the night, the result could have been a famous draw or even a win in the best case scenario.
Under Stimac, India have so far managed only one win out of the 12 matches. There have been six defeats.
Even factors such as COVID-19 pandemic, long international gap and India's small domestic season is not enough to explain the capitulation against UAE and raises major questions on the team's progress.
When Indian players did try to break away from their counterparts, the pace and strength needed was missing. This also puts the focus on Stimac's squad selection. Due to the long international gap, the team was picked on recent results in the Indian Super League (ISL). Fair enough, but the decision to leave behind experienced players like Subhasish Bose, Pronay Halder and Udanta Singh who could have provided more pace and strength, appears more erroneous now. A more balanced team between experience and youth appears to be the right formula.
Stimac took the friendlies as an opportunity to try out new players and opted for wholesome changes. While that was a necessary step taken as India head into the qualifiers, fans would hope for a rise in the level of performance next time they take the field.
Indian players need more matches
UAE result was a reality check, but it came as a result of playing against a far superior opponent. That's the way forward, playing against strong teams more often. The more India play against top teams, the better they will get. The more they will be able to assess their mistakes and correct them.
Besides this, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) must look at ways to increase the number of matches Indian players play in a season. This is not necessarily because of the UAE result, but it has been a very long-standing demand in the footballing ecosystem of India. The top division players currently only have the ISL to play in, which comprises 11 teams. There's a need for separate tournaments to expand the number of matches from 20 to 35 or 40.
For example, the UAE Pro League has 14 teams. Besides the Pro League, the teams also compete in the President's Cup and League Cup.
Manvir and Aakash impress
There were few positive takeaways from the friendlies as well. None more than the performance of striker Manvir Singh in the absence of Chhetri. The Punjab striker joined the national side after a successful ISL season where he scored six goals and made three assists for ATK Mohun Bagan.
Manvir featured mostly on the right side of ATK MB's attack line with Roy Krishna operating from the centre. For India, he was asked to play as the lone striker and put in applause-worthy shifts in both matches despite the scarcity of service. He scored the only goal against Oman, heading the cross from Bipin Singh into the back of the net. Even against UAE, he managed two shots on target. India, for long, have been on the lookout for a successor to Chhetri. Manvir with his recent outings has shown that he is running alone in that race.
Left-back Aakash Mishra was the only defender to start in both matches. He accumulated more minutes than any other defenders in the friendlies which were an audition for the June qualifiers.
India defenders had a horrible time against the UAE but on the balance of things, Hyderabad FC's Aakash did well to make a case for his continued inclusion. He was at times easily outmuscled and outpaced by the opposition players but the strength and pace is something the 19-year-old footballer should be able to add to his arsenal with time.
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