The SAFF Championships success was the Blue Tigers’ biggest achievement this year.

After signing off 2020 ranked 104th, India ended 2021 ranked 106th. In other words, the Indian football team haven’t seen a lot of change over the course of the last 12 months. Under Croatian Igor Stimac, the team has seen the outset of several careers, with new heroes coming to the fore. 

The team played 12 games in the period, winning five and drawing five. They turned on the heat late into the season, scoring six times in the last two games. These two dominant performances against Maldives and Nepal saw India lift their first trophy under Stimac, the SAFF Championships. Let’s dive into a detailed analysis of the year for the Indian national team.

 

Indian Football Team in 2021
Indian Football Team in 2021

Top performers

Chinglensana Singh Konsham

It is difficult to match the trajectory that this player has had over the course of the last 12 months or so. After joining Hyderabad FC in September 2020, Sana had a brilliant Indian Super League season under Manolo Marquez and has continued in the same vein this time as well. He’s one of the most natural ball-playing defenders in the country and his cross-field passes are a delight to watch. 

The 25-year-old made his (official) international debut against heavyweights Oman, which saw the Blue Tigers hold the West Asian nation to a 1-1 draw. Since then, Sana has been one of the first names on the team-sheet and led the defence with aplomb during the SAFF Championships, in the absence of senior pro Sandesh Jhingan. 

Lalengmawia

A boy who was the fourth-choice central midfielder during the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2017 has transformed into India’s best No. 6. As the most expensive transfer in the history of Indian football, Apuia has also lived up to its reputation for the Blue Tigers as well. He always has that extra second on the ball, something that comes naturally to him. Positioning, too, is one of his strong fortes. 

Like Sana, he too made his Indian football team debut against Oman in March, but only as a second half substitute. Since then, he’s been the mainstay for the national team, stringing passes with consummate ease. Recognizing his display, captain Sunil Chhetri handed over the “Man of the Match” award to Apuia after winning it against the Maldives. 

Sunil Chhetri 

Tired of writing ‘Captain, Leader, Legend’ in his eulogy, I’m adding another word to this phrase – Saviour. Cometh the hour, cometh the man continues to sit aptly on this workhorse-like performer, who gives his 100% and a little more every time he’s on the field for the Indian flag. He scored eight times over the course of last year, helping India to the SAFF Championships title. 

To put it into context, he earned 13 points (four wins and a draw) for the Blue Tigers and sits at third place on the active international goalscorers’ table, with 80 strikes in 125 appearances. Going forward, India will hope he continues till the 2023 AFC Asian Cup and helps the team to put in commendable displays.

Underperformer of the season

Sahal Abdul Samad

He’s on this only because of the unbelievable potential he possesses. One of the silkiest footballers the nation has recently produced, Sahal has not delivered his best for the national team with bothersome consistency. He didn’t make the cut on several occasions and did not make full use of the chances he got. 

He was sparsely creative during the SAFF Championships as well, but found himself on the scoresheet in the final in the 90+1 minute to make it 3-0 against Nepal. Sahal has been in fine form for Kerala Blasters this season, scoring four goals in eight outings. He has re-invented his style and approach into the box and is thriving in the role away from the middle of the park. He can be expected to play a key role in the next year for the Blue Tigers.

Sahal Abdul Samad
Sahal Abdul Sahal’s 2021 in numbers

Top performances

India vs Oman 1-1

India vs Maldives 3-1

India vs Nepal 3-0

Manager’s Report Card

There was a lot of hullabaloo on the arrival of Igor Stimac in 2019, but it can be safely said that the manager hasn’t lived up to the expectations. While the national team has now started to play a possession-based style of football, the team has failed to win regularly against lower-ranked teams such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. 

On the flip side, he has developed a fine pool of talent comprising Apuia, Mohammad Yasir, Suresh Singh Wangjam, and Glan Martins among others, players who will serve the national team in the long run. The Croatian might want to lay out a detailed plan with all ISL and I-league clubs to ensure that all teams play a distinctive brand of football, a move that has helped several countries across the globe. 

Lessons to be learned

While the incessant chopping and-changing hasn’t helped, the Indian football team finally looks to have a solid pool of 16-18 players with enough mix of experience and youthful exuberance. The team has almost re-built itself in the Stimac era and looks to be in the final stage of evolution. In both the short and the long run, the Blue Tigers continue to have an Achilles heel – the absence of a dependable goalscorer sans Sunil Chhetri. 

Manvir Singh has run hot and cold and Ishan Pandita could not transfer his FC Goa form to the national team. The likes of Sahal Abdul Samad and Liston Colaco have been in good goalscoring form for their respective clubs. It remains to be seen if they can replicate the same at the top level. The team also needs to have the killer instinct to eke out three points on a regular basis, something that they have struggled with. 

Khel Now’s Indian Football Team for 2021

Khel Now's Indian Football Team of the Year 2021
Khel Now’s Indian Football Team of the Year 2021

Fan view – by Jerin Solomon

Jerin Solomon

As we know that we are not yet a Footballing nation or not yet a rising power in Asia in Football. Still, we are showing a glimpse of change. Playing a competitive league, even it is not a long seasonal one.. We found we can produce promising talents. We are also aware that our grassroots are not in a standard of other international football nations.. still, in limits, we became capable of generating talents.

Unfortunately what we are lacking is a good coach for our national team, who can understand the capability and capacity of Indian players. With the current coach, I personally believe that he is not good at tactical approach by understanding what your players are capable of. The previous one understood about the players – what they lacked and what they were good at.

SAFF Championship is the glory we gained this year. Despite a one-goal loss in WC qualifiers against Qatar, we showed our fighting spirit. But we haven’t been successful in beating Afghanistan and Bangladesh in both home and away format. Now the real threat is that we haven’t found a replacement for the aging legend Sunil Chhetri.

As an Indian football enthusiast, I hope we will learn from our mistakes and we will go march forward. We want to see the rise of the blue moon in the future and emerge as an Asian powerhouse. The road is long, but the belief is everything.

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