India saw off Kenya in the final to lift the Intercontinental Cup at a packed Mumbai Football Arena. This wasn't a foregone conclusion by any means when the tournament was announced, certainly not the full house.
Apart from a 1-2 reverse against New Zealand, India cruised through the competition with win over Kenya and Chinese Taipei in which they scored 8 goals without reply. The tournament was highlighted by Sunil Chhetri's 100th game for India, and the captain made it a memorable night with a brace to help India book a place in the final.
The Intercontinental Cup win means The Blue Tigers have now won 14 out of their last 18 games. Some of the performances during this streak suggest that the team is on the right track to give a good account of themselves at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
As the dust settles on a memorable tournament in Mumbai, here's a look at the key takeaways from the event.
Sunil Chhetri is India's hero on and off the pitch, but for how long?
Chhetri ran the show for India on the pitch. He scored 8 out of the 11 goals they scored in the competition. Apart from the goals, the Indian captain was at the heart almost every move that his team conjured. From functioning as the focal point in attack through some excellent hold-up play, to wreaking havoc by making runs behind defenders often chasing perfectly darted long balls, to landing the lethal finish when it mattered the most, Chhetri ticked all the boxes of an ideal center-forward performance. There was more to his game during the Intercontinental Cup than his attacking abilities. He chased down every defender, joined forces with his defenders when needed, and didn't hesitate from contesting fifty-fifty balls. He kept his teammates on toes and didn't let the team drop intensity. "I have learnt over the years that when a senior player puts in a shift, it rubs on to the other players. I just try to be an example, and I can see that the team reacts after seeing me work. I just hope it continues," Chhetri said after winning the final.
Chhetri doesn't leave his responsibilities on the pitch. He's as much a leader on the pitch as he's off it. His heartfelt plea that lasted a mere 2 minutes and 24 second was enough to turn a crowd of about 2000 in the first game to 9000 in the next just a couple of days later. Troubled by the low attendance in the game against Chinese Taipei, Chhetri urged his countrymen to get involved with the Indian football team even if it means criticising their performance. Chhetri's simplistic and honest appeal struck a chord with the Indian people who turned up in large numbers for the remainder of the tournament. For what the AIFF and it's promotional partners struggled to achieve for years, Chhetri just needed a couple of minutes.
However, it's a wave that may die down by the time India take to the field again. A captain or players can't keep pleading people to watch the national team play and the AIFF must use the increased awareness on the issue to develop lng-term solutions to attract fans to the stadium.
On the pitch Chhetri has scored 75% of India's goals this year. Without its inspirational captain, The Blue Tigers look a weaker team. The tame defeat away to Kyrgyz Republic in the final AFC Asian Cup qualifier highlighted how heavily India depends on its skipper. In the Asian Cup, India's opponents will try and shackle Chhetri in all ways possible, so India will have to find answers from elsewhere. In the lead up to the Asian Cup, Stephen Constantine's men will have to find ways of posing a threat even when Chhetri is having an off day.
Even at 33, Chhetri is Indian football's biggest poster boy. But for how long?
Constantine's squad takes shape
Intensity, tactical discipline and cohesiveness were hallmarks of India's performance at the Intercontinental Cup. In games India fielded it's full-strength team, they didn't concede goal, while still being able to create ample opportunities. There was clarity about India's game plan and everyone in the team was aware of their roles. The central defensive partnership of Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika, that has flourished over couple of years, appeared to have hit their peak in this competition. India have kept 7 clean sheets in the 13 games that they have played together. Similarly, in central midfield, Pronoy Halder and Anirudh Thapa seemed to complement each other pretty well. Halder's ability to break up play combined with Thapa's sharp passing skills in combination with the duo's exceptional work rate meant India remained in control of midfield despite not always enjoying a lot of possession.
The wide players Udanta Singh and Halicharan Narzary didn't make headlines for their contributions in attack, but the tactical discipline they showed in tracking down the opponent full-backs, while also covering up for their own at times was an encouraging sign. Upfront, the combination between Jeje Lalpekhlua and Chhetri continued to deliver results.
With just a handful of games to go before India's opening game against Thailand in the AFC Asian Cup, Constantine's squad seems to be taking shape. The starting line-up looks settled and at home in the current system. There will be tougher challenges ahead, but Constantine and India are certainly on the right track.
Weak opposition hardly helps preparation for Asian Cup
On paper, the Intercontinental Cup seemed to be the ideal preparation even after South Africa withdrew from the tournament. But by the time the teams arrived, it was clear that India wouldn't be tested as expected. Kenya, New Zealand and Chinese Taipei landed in India with their big guns back home. Most of the players from these teams who played in European leagues were given a rest.
India thus had to face what was in front of them and none, apart from New Zealand, caused India many problems. In the loss against New Zealand, India too rested more than half of its favoured side. The Blue Tigers made easy work of Chinese Taipei, and registered fairly comfortable wins against Kenya. The SAFF Cup in September is expected to be another fairly easy ride for Chhetri and Co and barring a few friendly opportunities, India will not be tested by teams ranked above them in FIFA charts. In their last Asian Cup campaign, India came unstuck, losing all their games by a margin of three goals and to avoid similar humiliation, they must rub shoulders with better teams more often. The Intercontinental Cup, in that aspect, was a missed opportunity.
Anirudh Thapa, Subhasish Bose grab their chance
Almost half of the Indian players in the camp ahead of the Intercontinental Cup were youngsters who were finding their feet at the big stage. Constantine threw them the opportunity to crack the national team and Anirudh Thapa and Subhasish Bose grabbed that chance with both hands.
Thapa, especially, was impressive in the heart of the Indian midfield. His energy and work rate was a menace for the opponents as they could neither bypass him nor live with him. The desire to make darting attacking runs and get involved in short intricate passing moves added great balance to India's midfield especially with Halder shielding the defence.
Bose meanwhile was a rock at left back. He didn't allow much to get past him in the entire tournament and provided adequate support in attack when required. His sound defending added stability to the Indian rearguard who successfully sustained the pressure the Kenyans put on them in the second half in the final.
The two youngsters earned the manager's praise and their selection for the final showed the faith Constantine has in them. A solid performance in the competition may not ensure an Asian Cup berth, but those hoping to displace the duo have their work cut out.
Updated Date: Jun 12, 2018 08:01 AM