King's Cup 2019: New-look Indian side's performance reflects promising future under coach Igor Stimac despite chinks in defence

The Indian football team’s match against hosts Thailand for the third-place in the King’s Cup was a sharp contrast from their encounter in the Asian Cup in January this year. Back then, the Indian team, well-set under coach Stephen Constantine, had produced a masterclass – arguably the country’s best game in the past few decades – to overpower Thailand 4-1. On Saturday, in Igor Stimac’s second match as the Indian head coach, the Blue Tigers displayed a solid performance, playing within their limits, as they slowly tried to comprehend the new, possession-based approach.

 Kings Cup 2019: New-look Indian sides performance reflects promising future under coach Igor Stimac despite chinks in defence

Anirudh Thapa celebrates his goal that made the difference against Thailand, securing third place for India in the King's Cup. Image courtesy: Twitter @Indianfootball

A 1-0 victory meant India equalled their best ever performance in the King’s Cup, but the biggest success of the tournament would have been how Stimac got an opportunity to see the entire squad in action, which will help the coach decide a team for the Intercontinental Cup in July.

India started in a 4-4-2 formation with eight changes from the squad that played against Curacao. Captain Sunil Chhetri and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu were replaced by Balwant Singh and Amrinder Singh respectively as Stimac stuck true to his promise of giving everyone a chance. Anirudh Thapa got his place back in starting line-up spearheading the midfield diamond while Delhi Dynamos youngster Vinit Rai sat at the base. Raynier Fernandes and Amarjit Singh, both second-half substitutes in the match against Curacao, took up the left and right corners of the midfield while Farukh Choudhary played as a secondary striker.

Adil Khan took up the central defensive role along with Sandesh Jhingan while Rahul Bheke was slotted into the right back’s role. India dominated the first quarter of the match but their goal was a lucky one. Thailand failed to clear a misdirected free-kick which fell for Adil Khan, who rolled the ball to the far post for Thapa to run into.

The future is the midfield

Thapa, the only goal-scorer from that 4-1 victory against Thailand in January to start the match, was the star for India going forward in the match, linking up well with his midfield and was always looking to break. His inclusion in the team was certainly justified, as was Vinit Rai’s, who sat back and dictated the tempo of the match.

The match gave a clear indication to why Stimac wanted 11 midfielders traveling him to Thailand. All four in the squad on Saturday brought something unique to the squad while Sahal Abdul Samad and Brandon Fernandes are two athletes who bring in a different dimension to the attack. Jackichand Singh failed to impress as a second-half substitute but he, Michael Soosairaj, Lallianzuala Chhangte and Udanta Singh offer pace in the attack, which will be essential against top sides, especially with the dearth in the quality of India’s forward line.

Balwant Singh struggled throughout the match, unable to find his feet in this new look Indian team that wants him to interlink with his midfielders instead of simply trying to get at the end of crosses. Farukh didn’t have a great game either, occupying a slightly wider role. Manvir Singh’s substitution for Balwant changed the team dynamics slightly, with the FC Goa striker relentlessly chasing down the opposition defence, but he is yet to show anything to suggest he can be that Number 9 the team is crying out for. The jury is still out on Jobby Justin but Stimac might as well give the ATK-bound striker a shot, considering the other players he has at his disposal.

The centre-back conundrum

The 30-year old, Adil Khan, who hasn’t played as a centre-back since his days at Churchill Brothers in 2017, was the best defender on the pitch against Thailand. This raises multiple questions – why did it take so long for the player to be identified? And, how did it come to a situation where the national team is forced to play someone out of position in the centre of the defence? Adil is entering the team towards the end of his career (he did make his debut back in 2012 but then went down the pecking order), with his best playing days probably past him, and it is exactly what happened to Anas Edathodika, his predecessor. The problem can largely be attributed to clubs preferring to play foreign players in the centre of defence. This, in turn, has pushed a lot of good Indian centre-backs to move into the midfield or stick to a defensive role in the often neglected I-League.

As long as the current system stays, India will forever be in short of quality centre-backs, and this, hence, should be a priority for Stimac and the new Technical Director Isac Doru. It is well documented how countries like Belgium have forced certain rule changes in club levels, especially in the lower divisions and youth leagues, to improve a certain skill set in upcoming players, and India will have to adopt a drastic approach if they are harbouring hopes of making to the top group in Asia-Pacific soon.

A great start for Stimac

Thailand are a good footballing side and India’s dominance over the team should surely be seen as a sign of things improving. Curacao, with their players playing in the Dutch Eredivisie and other top leagues across Europe, proved to be a much more difficult side for India but the team showed enough promise to expect a good performance in July in the Intercontinental Cup.

The coach also got to see almost his entire squad in action which will be the biggest positive of the King’s Cup. The current batch of Indian footballers are playing with a sense of belief that was absent for so many years in the national team, passing their way out of difficult situations and showing a never-say-die grit whenever required. The team is definitely a work-in-progress but the future definitely bodes well for this young group of footballers.

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Updated Date: Jun 08, 2019 18:59:36 IST