A draw against Afghanistan on Tuesday ensured the Blue Tigers a third spot finish in group E.
On Tuesday, Igor Stimac‘s India were held to a 1-1 draw by Afghanistan in their final Group E match of the joint-FIFA World Cup 2022 and AFC Asian Cup 2023 Qualifiers. The Blue Tigers took the lead with an own goal from Afghan goalkeeper Ovays Azizi, in the 75th minute. However, that domination lasted just seven minutes as Afghanistan equalized in the 82nd minute.
When India began their advent, everyone’s realistic aim on papers was for Stimac’s side to finish third. In the same group as Asian champions Qatar and heavyweights Oman, everyone expected India to finish ahead of Bangladesh and Afghanistan, to say the least. While they have gone ahead and done that, the guarantee was never there until the last day.
Disappointing first half of the campaign
Most of it comes down to the Blues’ performance in the first half of the campaign. Starting against Oman, the performance of India in the first half of the FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifiers campaign was all over the place. The Blue Tigers missed an opportunity to hold on to a lead against Oman as they conceded twice in the last 10 minutes.
Despite playing against a superior opponent, India could have defended the lead. Well, that was only one of the many chances that India were to lose further in the campaign.
The Indian football team’s high, for the whole first round, was drawing Qatar in Doha. The Indian team, with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s heroics, forced Qatar to share spoils. However, the following matches came as a shock to Stimac’s side. India escaped losses against Bangladesh and Afghanistan in the dying minutes. Adil Khan and Seiminlen Doungel’s goals helped India score points, but they were not expected to be in those situations in the first place.
Igor Stimac and co also had a chance to secure the third spot and challenge for the second place at the end of the first round of games. However, a disappointing spell set India up for a complex journey in the second round of the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers.
The struggle to find a right combination
We’re talking about a time when Igor Stimac’s side looked unorganized and were still struggling to find their best XI. For the most part, the Indian midfield kept interchanging. It is fair to say only Brandon Fernandes remained a regular. It seemed that the issue was finally settled after India side faced Qatar for the second time in the World Cup Qualifiers, earlier in June 2021.
Glan Martin’s inclusion and his performance afterwards, served as a huge plus for the side’s starting set. However, that was only partially applicable in case of the starting line-ups, not the tactics.
In the tactical front, despite advocating for possession-based football, Stimac experimented with various formations throughout the campaign. The Indian side switched between 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 3-5-2, and 4-1-4-1 during the tournament. India’s gameplay often looked clueless, due to a constant change in personnel. The team looked toothless going forward and for the most part, was ineffective in replicating the tactical diagram.
The team finally found a way against Bangladesh to finally score two goals from open play. However, it all came down to Sunil Chhetri’s individual brilliance, without a coordinated and effective tactical approach. That indicates India’s shortcomings.
And the question, yet again, would be, have Igor Stimac found a combination for themselves – yet?
Stimac’s stint throughout the qualifiers
Indian football fans have different opinions when it comes to the talks about the Croatian’s contract extension. Performance wise, the campaign too, was a paradox for Stimac.
Like we discussed above, he struggled to find the right combination for his team. However, there were certain things that were impressive from the tactician. For one, India looked better against big teams throughout their World Cup Qualifiers campaign. Stimac’s flexibility and understanding to play pragmatic football against the likes of Oman and Qatar mostly paid off well. The Blue Tigers were able to get a point against Qatar and were in a commanding position to win against Oman with a lead going into the final 10 minutes.
Even in the 0-1 loss against Qatar, Stimac’s management after being restricted to 10 men was a blueprint of his abilities.
Despite this, the Indian football team always looked better when chasing the game rather than when they were controlling it. Their defending against Qatar to secure a draw in the first round came off the back of a dominating Qatari side. The same performance, going against opponents of their level fleeted away. The two draws against Afghanistan and a draw against Bangladesh were proper testaments to this paradox.
Under Stimac, India seldom looked superior in creating goals. It all came down to individual performances to get themselves off the line. Whether it was Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s courageous efforts against Qatar or Sunil Chhetri’s brilliance against Bangladesh, the tactician always had to rely on these to pull a rabbit out of the hat.
The lacking intent
Against Afghanistan, Sunil Chhetri came off for Liston Colaco in the 69th minute, when the scoreline was still 0-0. This was India’s second substitution on the night, after Brandon Fernandes made way for Apuia. Taking off the prime threat in front of goal and the playmaker, especially against a side that can be beaten, surely raised eyebrows. It looked as if the Indian side were going for a draw. Eventually, exactly that happened.
In a different reality, the Blue Tigers would have a better chance at winning with Chhetri on. The Indian defence could have hindered Afghanistan’s goal-scoring build-up in multiple stages, but it did not happen.
Throughout the World Cup Qualifiers, Qatar were the only team that completely took India out of the game. They lost the first round against Oman only in the final 10 minutes. In the matches that followed, the intent to trouble the opponents with attacking intent and kill the game off was absent. One could argue that the Indian attack’s inability would have resulted in a similar situation, but wouldn’t the other way round be the ideal way to go?
What’s next for India?
India have matched what was expected of them at the World Cup Qualifiers, but not in a manner everyone would have liked to. The journey could have been comfortable for the Blue Tigers, instead of lingering with just a win.
Among all the uncertainties surrounding Stimac’s contract extension, lies a certainty. The Blue Tigers will not have room to miss this many chances going into the final round of AFC Asian Cup 2023 Qualifiers. If India are to become a strong force in Asia, they need to start creating chances and most importantly start utilizing them.