The Blue Tigers produced a stellar showing in the second half to sweep aside the challenge of Thailand in their AFC Asian Cup opener.
India squared off against Thailand at the Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, in what was their first appearance in the AFC Asian Cup since 2011. In a game where most experts had predicted a draw or a narrow victory, India ran rampant securing a historic 1-4 success, their first win in the Asian Cup since 1964.
The Blue Tigers scored their first against the run of play through Sunil Chhetri, who calmly slotted away his penalty. Thailand got back on level terms just a few minutes later, when Teerasil rose highest to head in Theerathon’s superb free-kick into Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s goal. Thailand knocked on the door a couple of times again in the first half.
However, the second half breathed new life into the Blue Tigers, as Udanta Singh and Ashique Kuruniyan combined to setup Chhetri, who scored his 67th international goal, taking him ahead of Lionel Messi and to second spot in the list of highest active international goalscorers, with a spectacular finish from the edge of the box. This goal opened the floodgates for India who ran away with the game.
In the 68th minute, Chhetri released Udanta with a spectacular through ball behind the Thai defence. The winger took it in his stride and turned to lay off a smart ball to the young Anirudh Thapa, who finished off the entire sequence of beautiful football with a cherry on top with his delightful chip. Jeje Lalpekhlua came off the bench with 10 minutes remaining and added another, with an astounding curling effort from the edge of the box. This will give confidence to the Mizo Sniper who has been off form lately.
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Starting Lineups & Formations
Thailand manager Rajevac started with a 4-2-3-1 formation. This would often shift to a flat 4-4-2 while defending. Captain Teerasil led the line and he was supported by Chanathip in the hole behind the striker. Those two were complemented by Supachai and Adisak in midfield, while Thitipan and Sanrawat acted as the double pivot. Kerdkaew and Pansa was the centre-back pairing on the night and Tristan Do and Bunmathan completed the defence in wide full-back positions.
India started with a 4-4-2 which would often take the shape of a 4-4-1-1, with Chhetri leading the line. Stephen Constantine was spot on with his team selection as he dropped the off-colour Lalpekhlua for the young Ashique Kuruniyan, who managed to impress everyone with his energetic and decisive display. In midfield, Anirudh Thapa and Holicharan Narzary led proceedings with Udanta offering an extra man on the wings. Pronay Halder was the pivot ahead of a defence of Anas Edathodika and Sandesh Jhingan, while Pritam Kotal and Subhasish Bose acted as full-backs.
Early Exchanges: A game of close quarters with Thailand on top
The first ten minutes of the game were chaotic, with both sides trying to impose their domination on the game. India utilized the left wing with Kuruniyan’s pace coming in handy in the first few minutes. He even managed to square two delightful balls into the box within the first three minutes, but unfortunately for the men wearing white on the night, there was no-one to capitalize on them.
Thailand’s early line of press was mostly non-existent and when used, was triggered by a single player, usually being Theerasil. As a result, Sandesh and Anas had no problems overcoming the first line but after this point, missed passes, poor first touches and lack of communication crept in and it became Thailand’s primary zone for retrieving the ball. India also lost possession multiple times by trying to play over the top long balls, mostly unsuccessfully. It was here that Thailand started taking control of the half.
An extra defensive midfielder helped Thailand transition smoother in the first half
India defended with a 4-4-2 and their pressing was more intense as compared to Thailand’s. The press was also triggered as a collective unit with Chhetri, Udanta and Thapa all converging on players. However, the fact that Thailand played two defensive midfielders in Puangchan and Dechmitr just ahead of their defensive line, worked to their advantage in the first half.
This allowed them to create numerical superiority in the line between the defence and advanced midfield, something that India failed to do in the first 45 and allowed them to transition better. Kotal and Subhasish had to stay deep and defend narrow. Thailand’s attacks down the wing and half-spaces in the final third were often built on the basis of this structure in their midfield. Pronay Halder and Narzary were caught in two minds between pressing higher or holding the line and as a result, Chanathip and Kraisorn enjoyed space between the lines of midfield and defence, which made them the more threatening side in the first half.
Small tactical shift at half-time by Stephen Constantine decided the course of the game
In the second half, Constantine asked Udanta to tuck in a little deeper in midfield and brought Ashique on the right wing. This had dual advantages, as India planned to use the channel on the right as their primary creation zone with numerical overloads.
- Udanta Singh tucking in deeper meant more support for Thapa and Pronay Halder, who now enjoyed their fair share of possession and stopped that extra overload that Thailand had in midfield with an extra pivot. This allowed the Blue Tigers to build more meaningful moves and win the battle of possession.
- Kuruniyan is naturally left-footed and moving him to the right meant he now had the chance to run at the opposition full-back and drift in centrally to provide final balls to Chhetri. This took out the need for him to deliver crosses into the box, since India were no match for Thailand physically.
These factors also enabled Pritam Kotal to make marauding runs and provide an extra man in attack. All of them came to the fore right after half-time when Kotal, Udanta and Ashique created a textbook counter-attack to lay the ball off to Chhetri on the edge of the box, who finished the move with a thunderous strike into the top corner.
The quick goal right after half-time completely nullified Thailand’s plans for the second half
After conceding that quick goal in the second half, Thailand seemed shell shocked. They had no answers and started treating possession cheaply with silly mistakes and forced errors. India, on the other hand, capitalized on this by playing short, smart and quick exchanges in the attacking third with Chhetri, Kuruniyan, Udanta and Thapa combining expertly.
The Thai structure became chaotic as they lost control of the match. As a result of this, they could not carve out meaningful attacks in the second half and left plenty of space in the line between the midfield and defence. This huge chasm was exploited effortlessly by Chhetri and it led to India’s third goal, when the forward found Udanta’s mazy run at the Thai defence with a sublime ball and Thapa was on hand to finish the move spectacularly.
Stephen Constantine may have done a lot of things wrong in his tenure as national team coach, but he deserves plaudits for his team selection and half-time team-talk in the victory over Thailand. His picks couldn’t have orked any better and his half-time changes revitalized India in the second half, for whom Thailand didn’t have any answers.
The players can tap themselves on the back as well for the commitment and desire they showed, especially in the second 45. This victory leaves India top of the group with three points and can go a long way in making sure they qualify for the Round of 16.