A much-changed Blue Tigers lineup fell to their first defeat in the Intercontinental Cup.
New Zealand gate-crashed India’s party at the Mumbai Football Arena on Thursday, beating the hosts 1-2 in an end-to-end game, that saw a lot of opportunities for both teams. Indian manager Stephen Constantine made seven changes to the starting XI that defeated Kenya 3-0, with Sunil Chhetri walking the team out.
At the end of the 90, fans from the full-house Mumbai arena went back home disappointed as a goal from the All Whites side in the 86th minute broke Indian hearts. There was, even so, much to look at, talk about and learn from the game. Here, we take a look at the five talking points from the match.
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5. India lacks a second choice centre-back pairing
Salam Ranjan Singh and Subashish Bose started the game as India’s perpetual centre-back pairing of Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika were healing their wounds, quite literally. The U-23 players showed discipline, but didn’t have the much-needed chemistry to defy the fleet-footed opposition. The central defenders allowed enough space and time for the New Zealand attackers to build in the attacking third and India paid the price.
23 attacks throughout a game is no small feat, but Constantine can put up a brave front as his favoured pair was sitting out. Jhingan did arrive onto the scene in the second half, but didn’t have much to do, except the occasional header out and hitting the ball into the horizon. India (probably) missed Rahul Bheke and Adil Khan, players easily capable of shutting these attacks down.
4. Chhetri presses, and pulls the team ahead
Sunil Chhetri, Indian football’s man on a mission, has been more influential than ever, now that he’s featuring in the middle of the park. The #11 is demanding a lot of his teammates and co-ordinates play in a maverick way.
The way he demands and commands respect alongside the effective performances he pitches in with, week in and week out, is a sight to behold. The team pressed effectively against New Zealand (need of the hour as well) and Chhetri led from the front.
Watch Stephen Constantine’s press conference after New Zealand defeat
The skipper was time and again seen passing orders to Udanta Singh, Jeje Lalpekhlua, Holicharan Narzary and Balwant Singh (in the first half). Whenever he pressed one defender, he expected and showed his attacking colleagues who needs to be covered. His hands directed and that is important in terms of football intelligence, if India have to dig out results in big games. His chemistry with Lalpekhlua and the way the duo is feeding off each other can help India in their feasible dream, the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
3. Constantine accepted that he got the XI wrong. Thankfully, he changed it.
At the outset of the game, we were delighted to see that India are going in with three midfielders. Rowlin Borges, Anirudh Thapa and Mohd. Rafique were tasked with the responsibility to transition and break down play in the middle of the pitch and a lot was expected of the move. Rafique played at the tip and the move incredulously failed.
Constantine realised the trio had little effect and brought on Udanta in place of Rafique as early as the 29th minute. The coach accepted that he had got a move wrong and willingly changed the system, back to a more familiar 4-4-2. The players suddenly looked more comfortable, and the pitch was stretched down the right. Udanta wasn’t immensely effective, but had his moments.
The beginning of the second half also saw regulars walk in. Lalpekhlua had to come in at some point, but the introduction of Pronay Halder and Narzary proved that the manager was willing to make amends. It did not have much effect on the game, but spoke massively about Constantine’s willingness to accept mistakes. In the past, a lot has been written about the man’s rigidness. A little can be said on his flexibility, finally.
2. India have no wing-play. Period.
Sorry, Udanta Singh and Holicharan Narzary. You spared a lot of sweat for India’s defensive duties and there’s no taking away from you on the same. The team, though, needs more from its attacking outlets closer to the touchline. In the second half, Narzary had three crosses behind the goal and Udanta tried to outsmart the right-back twice, failing on both occasions.
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On the contrary, Sarpreet Singh from New Zealand, a 19-year-old lad, was firing on all cylinders. The left-footed player had the match of his life and his incisive crosses and cut-ins enthralled the crowd, that has been regularly apprehensive of any opposition. Cheers to Sarpreet’s brilliance were regularly heard and a closer look at the complete scenario would disappoint the home fans, who didn’t get much to cheer from Narzary or Udanta, India’s best hopes at UAE 2019.
1. Subhashish Bose is India’s find of the tournament
If an Indian fan looks back at the 2018 Intercontinental Cup, he would certainly remember the rise of a 22-year-old, who at one point in his career, was deemed too erratic and indisciplined to make it big. Fast forward to a season and a half later, Bose is India’s find at a continental tournament and is yet to put a foot wrong.
Starting off as a left-back against Chinese Taipei, the Mumbai City defender showed grit. In the game against Kenya, he started off as a left-back and moved to centre-back, displaying flexibility and maturity. Against New Zealand on Thursday evening, Bose took more responsibility in a backline that had a collective experience of two games at the senior level.
Fending off a fast and creative attack for more than 60 minutes is no mean feat and the way the man marshalled India’s back four is applaudable. Bose was easily one of the most inspired men in the young lineup and if he continues to do what he’s been doing, Narayan Das and Jerry Lalrinzuala would need to pull up their socks in the future. The defender always had the talent and it was evident during his Mohun Bagan days. But now, he’s finally looking serious about his game and is already giving most people a run for their money. Good call, Boss, good call!