Igor Stimac’s first match as the Indian football team coach didn’t go fully to the script, with the Blue Tigers losing 3-1 to Curacao in the first match of the King’s Cup. There were silver linings to the cloudy display though and plenty of the positives to take forward to their final match in the tournament in Thailand.
Six players – Rahul Bheke, Sahal Abdul Samad, Brandon Fernandes, Amarjit Singh, Raynier Fernandes and Michael Soosairaj – were handed their Indian team debut in what looked like a brave move by the coaching team to identify the core set of players for the future.
True to his promise, Stimac started the match with a brave, attacking line-up. The former Croatia coach put out his team in 4-2-3-1 shape, with Bheke partnering Jhingan in the central defence and Brandon joining hands with Pronay Halder in a double-pivot midfield.
But the Indian team really got no time to gel in the new formation, as a quicker, seemingly fitter, Curacao outpaced the Indian players. Within the first twenty minutes, Curacao were ahead by two goals, and threatening to run away with the lead. While Brandon impressed with his distribution early on, his lack of defensive nous exposed the defence too much with Halder struggling to contain the Curacao counter-attack. Bheke and Jhingan, playing together for the first time in the Indian shirt, made silly mistakes time and again which opened up space for the opposition attackers.
Up front, Sahal, playing slightly behind Sunil Chhetri, almost like a secondary-striker, struggled in the early stages with the pressure of the debut clearly showing on the Kerala Blasters youngster with some uncharacteristically heavy touches.
After going two goals down, Stimac altered his team a little, shifting to a three-man defence and pushing Subhasish Bose and Pritam Kotal into slightly more attacking wing-back roles. The move paid immediate dividends as Sahal won a penalty – a decision that could have gone either way. Sunil Chhetri slotted the ball to mark his record-breaking 108th appearance for the Indian team to bring some respite. But the happiness was short-lived as Curacao once again cut open the Indian defence right through the centre to make it three before half-time.
Though the Indian team did show promise, especially with the short passes, and the willingness to play out from the back, they possessed far to less power to disrupt Curacao’s play in extremely hot and humid conditions in Buriram. The Blue Tigers reacted too late to second balls which resulted in two goals. The Indian team also looked out gas for most parts, probably due to the fact they just reached Thailand 48 hours before the kick-off, unlike their opponents who reached a week back and were better acclimatized.
A new hope
Stimac decided to changed things – both the formation and the personnel – in the second half as he brought on youngsters Raynier Fernandes and Amarjit Singh in place of Lallianzuala Chhangte and Pronay Halder. Brandon was pushed to the left, while Udanta occupied the left in a 4-4-1-1 set up with Sahal playing the role of a secondary striker.
Sahal was the lynchpin for everything positive for India in the second half. The Under-23 star turned the Curacao midfielders with ease and sprayed passes at will. The only thing lacking in the midfielder’s armory is the ability to pull the trigger from a distance – something he will be expected to pick up as he progresses in his career.
But what allowed Sahal to be free to play his football was the hard work put in by Raynier and Amarjit in the midfield. The duo was a constant pain to the opposition attackers, ever willing to put their bodies on the line and jump in for a tackle. The promising Soosairaj was given the role of an attacker from the left flank for the final 30 minutes but the ATK-bound forward failed to impress in his cameo.
The stability India displayed in the 4-4-1-1 formation, something former coach Stephen Constantine used in abundance, will be food for thought for Stimac who also has to deal with the pressure of the whole nation urging him not to play ‘small team’ football. The match was, in fact, a reality check – Curacao are a CONCACAF side with plenty of footballers plying their trade in top European leagues – and for most parts of the match they looked like they could open up the Indian defence at will.
The match against the losers of Vietnam vs Thailand will be a more important test though. After years of SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) dominance, it is time for India to prove their mettle against superior footballing nations in South East Asia – a region India will need to beat in their quest to enter the elite league in Asia.
With no club commitments ahead, and Stimac getting a taste of what he has at his disposal, the Intercontinental Cup, slated to be played from 7 to 18 July will give a fair indication to what the future holds for the Indian football team. But for now, it is all about chopping and changing until Stimac finds the sweet spot.
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Updated Date: Jun 05, 2019 20:44:36 IST