The Blue Colts finished their campaign having bagged four points with one win.
The India U-23 football team ended their AFC U-23 Asian Cup 2022 Qualifiers’ campaign at second place in Group E. Despite having done little in terms of preparations, the Blue Colts produced some encouraging performances to pull off some surprising results in the end.
Unfortunately, finishing second in the group didn’t help them qualify for the main competition. They failed to be among the top-four second-placed teams that go through. That said, the Blue Colts still exceeded expectations – especially considering that the team played their first games since 2019.
Igor Stimac’s side were defensively solid and also played some attractive attacking football. With these performances, they proved that the future of the national team is in good hands.
India U-23 played their first competitive game since 2019 by facing Oman U-23 in their first game at the qualifiers. However, Igor Stimac’s side showed no signs of rustiness at all. In fact, they blew away Oman by playing impressive attacking football in the first half.
Rahim Ali scored the Blue Colts’ first goal through a penalty. Afterwards, Vikram Partap Singh produced an impressive finish to give India a comfortable lead before half-time. Oman got one back late in the second half, but some sturdy defending helped India get an important win.
In their second game, Stimac’s men faced the strongest team in the group – UAE U-23. To their credit, India actually went toe-to-toe with the talented UAE side. They defended really well and frustrated the hosts, while also creating some decent chances.
However, going too defensive made India pay as UAE won a penalty late on – which they converted into a goal. The Blue Colts went down fighting to a narrow 0-1 loss. With that, all the teams in the group were tied on identical points and goal difference heading into the final game.
India faced an unpredictable Kyrgyzstan U-23 side in their final qualifier. The Blue Colts put up a valiant show but could not find a goal against their sturdy opponents. In the end, both teams had to settle for a draw.
However, a penalty shootout was set up after full-time to decide which team finished as the second-best side from the group. Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem came up clutch in the shoot-out, saving two penalties to help his team finish the qualifiers on a high note. With that, India also finished second in the group.
Coming off some impressive performances with the Indian senior national team, Rahim Ali spearheaded the U-23 side’s attack. He assumed his responsibilities with utmost pride and proved his ability as a #9 with some commendable performances.
Ali had two goal contributions in the opener, scoring a smart penalty before setting up Vikram Partap’s goal as well. He could not get many chances in the next two qualifier matches, but put in tireless shifts whenever he was on the pitch. Ali also worked hard defensively, helped link-up clever attacks and bully defenders with his physicality – making a solid case for him possibly leading the line for India going forward.
India U-23 knew that they needed to be defensively sublime to limit their opponents in these qualifiers. The defence did its job well, but it was Dheeraj Singh who stole the limelight. The young custodian was unlucky not to keep a clean sheet in the first two games, conceding one from open-play and one through a penalty.
However, Dheeraj was not going to end the qualifiers without a clean sheet. He kept one against Kyrgyzstan, pulling off a number of brilliant saves to keep them at bay. The youngster turned into a hero in the penalty shooutout, saving two penalties to seal a second-place finish for his side.
Lalengmawia almost acted as India U-23’s ‘senior player’ in the qualifiers because of his incredible composure in possession. Despite not starting the first half, Apuia produced some admirable performances in the games he played.
He helped India maintain a strong midfield line, help out his backline with sturdy defensive work and also move the ball forward. The young midfielder continued to show his class by dictating play in the midfield for India and outwitted many opposition players throughout the qualifiers.
Coach’s report card
Igor Stimac didn’t really get much time to prepare for the AFC U-23 Asian Cup qualifiers because of the SAFF Championship. However, his decision to include many young players in his SAFF Championship squad ultimately paid off.
Stimac shaped up his side to maintain a stubborn shape, similar to the senior team. He was able to get the best out of multiple youngsters, motivating them to put in some admirable performances.
The India U-23 side worked hard in every game to ensure they were not completely outclassed. They also produced some encouraging attacking football, especially in the opener. Stimac will, however, have to hone his players’ finishing ability and make his team(s) more ruthless in the final third.
Lessons to be learned
With their performances in the qualifiers, India U-23 proved that they can hang with some of Asia’s best. But there will be little development if the U-23 side does not play more matches regularly. That itself has to be the biggest lesson learnt – to ensure the young team plays more games going forward.
Stimac also must learn to give his team a bit more freedom and license to play brave attacking football. India can’t rely on their defensive solidity and goalkeepers for results, be it at any level.
India U-23 struggled at times in the qualifiers after changing their shape or system mid-way through games. This was especially detrimental in their loss to UAE, where a defensive substitution and decision to go to a back-five formation helped the hosts get a late win.
Igor Stimac should learn the lesson for not changing up his formation often during games. Doing so often disrupts his side’s momentum and causes players to panic. As long as the India U-23 opt for a particular style or system to adhere to, they could get more wins going forward.