It will be the first time in seven years that no Indian team will be competing in knockout stages of the continental tournament.
There was quite the excitement surrounding the AFC Cup this year and not only because a very new face in Minerva Punjab represented as I-League champions. For the first time ever, an Indian Super League(ISL) champion Chennaiyin FC had the opportunity to make the league proud by participating in Asia’s second-biggest knockout tournament.
Despite both sides suffering poor campaigns in respective leagues, there was hope at least one (presumably the stronger Chennaiyin) would pip over Dhaka Abahani and Manang Marshyangdi to winning Group E. However, one stumble after another allowed the Bangladeshi side to prevail over the Indian ones, meaning that for the first time in seven years, an Indian side won’t be competing in AFC Cup’s knockout stages.
In a year when the Indian national team almost progressed into the AFC Asian Cup knockout stages after a courageous outing, this perhaps feels like a step back. Minerva Punjab, who had been stripped off their championship winning team last season, just wasn’t ready for a continental tournament. Moreover, off-the-field issues with the All India Football Federation(AIFF), home ground problems and an inadequate squad packed with injuries just didn’t help the former I-League champions.
However, the Marina Machans were heavy favourites to win the group knowing their reputation as two-time ISL Champions. Moreover, before the AFC Cup, they roped in Australian Chris Herd to boost their foreigner quota. CK Vineeth and Halicharan Narzary’s experience-factor was added, with the former having played the AFC Cup with Bengaluru FC in the past.
Even after a promising start, which saw the ISL giants win two of their first three matches, things just didn’t feel right. Perhaps the fact that Chennaiyin barely skipped their way into victories, playing some poor football and often relying on good fortune to bail them out. However in the trip to Bangladesh, their good fortune just wore out.
Losing their lead twice allowed Abahani to script a crucial win to take a lead in the group. Minerva definitely didn’t do them any good, with two stalemates really hampering both sides’ chances. In the final day, despite a hard-fought win against Manang Marshyangdi, the I-League side ended up conceding in the final minute, meaning Chennaiyin missed out by a whisker. The inevitable embarrassment was almost scripted in the books.
Granted, the Marina Machans did outperform Minerva, who failed to win a single game. However, the difference in circumstances and quality is telling. They obviously possessed much more resources than the I-League side and recruited some of India’s best in order to help them in their inaugural AFC Cup bow. Surely, there are no more excuses for an experienced side with a bigger budget and more quality than everyone else in the group.
Even when you consider John Gregory’s expertise as a top-level coach, with years of Premier League experience, expectations are meant to be high. Chennaiyin FC displayed a stark improvement in the Super Cup, even reaching the finals, but couldn’t maintain their competitive consistency in the Asian competition. Despite multiple years at helm, Gregory’s cautious tactics failed to impress beyond the ISL circle.
Inability to make the knockout stages also takes a hit on ISL’s reputation prior to it’s apparent upgrade to India’s #1 league. Considering that East Bengal, Dempo and Bengaluru FC have already made it much further in the AFC Cup, the I-League’s reputation is in good hands. While Chennaiyin had the opportunity to make ISL proud, losing out to Dhaka Abahani makes one question whether there’s a lack of competitiveness in the league.
The likes of Anirudh Thapa and CK Vineeth could’ve had their reputation drastically improved by playing in the knockout stages. However, now the rest of Asia probably retains their belief of India as an underachieving nation in football with this potential setback. Despite all their glamour, the ISL clubs are probably still seen in their infancy due to stark inexperience in pressure situations.
Perhaps going forward things can improve. When you look at how Bengaluru FC are back to playing the AFC Cup next season after winning the ISL, one could say they’re India’s best bet at going far. However, the ISL sides still need to practice more against the Asian heavyweights, possibly in pre-season, and gather better foreigners for the limited slots. Lack of experience is costly and could eventually doom ISL’s reputation in the continent.
The premature elimination from the AFC Cup must not be taken lightly. If Indian Football were to make a big name in the Asian circuit, the consistent success in club-level is also warranted. The disappointments are perhaps a warning sign for the top sides that despite performing well in the country, unless there’s a cutting edge to the team, succeeding in Asian competitions is almost like mission impossible itself.