The Blue Tigers looked a very different side against the West Asian side on Tuesday night.
All’s well that ends well. India ended their disappointing Hero Intercontinental Cup journey with a 1-1 draw against the mighty Syrians at the EKA Arena by TransStadia, in Gujarat on Tuesday. Both teams will be at the comfort of their sofas as the other two teams, DPR Korea and Tajikistan, will fight it out in the final.
Syria needed a win to make it to the showdown, but the hosts had other plans. An inspired display from the inspired Indian defence ensured that life was difficult for the Syrian forwards throughout the game. But for substitute Jerry Lalrinzuala’s poor mistake, India looked set to eke out a 1-0 win. The Chennaiyin FC defender gave away a rather poor penalty late into the game, allowing Syria to draw the match.
After 4-2 and 5-2 in the last two games, Coach Igor Stimac would happily take this scoreline though. Against the best ranked side in the tournament, India produced their best brand of football, inventing new avenues to attack up top while remaining secure at the back. Anirudh Thapa was a man on a mission, helping out the back four for the entire 90. He looked possessed at times, and ran non-stop to sew the attack with the defensive half.
Let us take a look at the positives and negatives from the encounter, encircling the analyses or inferences we reach at.
Rahul Bheke at centre-back has looked better than he has at the right-back position. In all honesty, Seriton Fernandes should be India’s last hope at right-back if Pritam Kotal fails to deliver. Also, it would be interesting to see Bheke combine with the ever-so-robust Adil Khan or Sandesh Jhingan when they are back on the pitch. Will the Bengaluru FC protector come back to his favoured centre-back position during the World Cup qualifiers? We’ll have to wait and see.
The man, inarguably, had a flawless game, by far the best he’s had in the national jersey.
Narender Gehlot praise from Khel Now after the game against Tajikistan met some detractors on social media, but the boy-turned-man proved us right. He was the second best defender on the pitch until he scored; the best after he placed the ball into the top corner of the Syrian net. At 18, he’s just started. You’ll see a lot, lot more of this lad.
And so will you of Amarjit Singh Kiyam, the soft-spoken, nimble-footed deep-lying playmaker who’s making the No. 5 role his own. These two will form the crux of the side five years from now, if they continue on the right path to development.
Up top, India has found their best four who’re linking up well. Lallianzuala Chhangte was slow off the blocks again, but came into his own in the second half, while Udanta Singh was right on the money from the first whistle. Sahal Abdul Samad and Sunil Chhetri are prospering together, and with more time, the duo is going to get better only.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is India’s finest when it comes to aerial balls, and the No. 1 proved that without a hiccup. He can be expected to step out second when India walks out next in the national jersey. A part of the first XI looks settled, except the defence.
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That’s exactly the negative as well – that the defence isn’t settled yet. Too many chops and changes, due to various reasons, hasn’t really allowed the players to calmly settle in, and communication is more important than anything else in a backline.
Sandhu, too, will have difficulty understanding the positioning of each player in from of him match in, match out. Adil Khan and Rahul Bheke’s call-up to national setup have been well documented, but pushing Jhingan or Subhashish Bose to the brink might lead to a fans’ backlash. Jhingan looked jittery in his short outing against DPR Korea, hitting playable balls long, a system not preferred by Stimac.
Narender Gehlot may have been brilliant against Syria, but expecting such performances from an 18-year-old in a pressure situation like a World Cup qualifier is too big a risk to take. That’s exactly why Stimac had his time at the King’s Cup and the Intercontinental Cup, so that the team doesn’t make unnecessary mistakes when the real test arrives.
Also, the almost unshakable reliability on Sunil Chhetri for delivering the goods in front of goal. India needs to up its game on set-pieces and bring in good headers like Bheke and Adil into the picture to earn more substance whenever someone puts their laces to curl a stagnant ball.
Gurpreet needs to hurry up with his deliveries on the counter. The former Stabaek keeper is holding on to a lot of possession and tried to find Udanta Singh with long balls even when Chhangte was nearby on the left wing, asking for it. Stimac needs to put his word across. Systems like these either work wonders, or don’t work if they aren’t trusted full well.
One thing is for sure, whoever faces India next, will be wary of its attack and will be licking its fingers over its defence. If India improve attacking-wise, they become a more compact side. If India develop defensively, they become a side that can really give heavy-weights a run for their money. There’s very little gap between the almost-there and up-there, and little bit of speed, concentration and adventurism could take the Blue Tigers up-there.
Stimac needs to work on his team’s defense extensively and against different kind of attacks. Like against Syria, the backline looked clueless whenever balls where played over the top in the first 45. The boys grew into the game, though. Whenever a striker plays right around your shoulder, the defender must be ready for a full-throttled race, because the opposite No. 9 will keep trying to run in behind you. Bheke, after playing a lot at the right-back position, has learnt it the hard way already. Others will do well to take a leaf out of his book.
Both Sahal and Amarjit will need to muscle up both their upper and lower bodies. The pair must ensure they do not lose the fluidity and natural athleticism they possess, or it may affect their game. They, though, have been pushed off the ball far too many times far too easily. Amarjit manages to hold onto it sometimes, but it will do him a world of good in his position if he beefs up a little. Defensive midfielders all across the globe are known to be physically robust. Just look at compatriot Pronay Halder, mate.
With Ashique Kuruniyan and Jeje Lalpekhlua expected to return anytime next month, things can only go positive for the attacking side of the game. Jeje will provide India will an added dimension, but it will be interesting to see how he’s inculcated into the thick of things. Kuruniyan, meanwhile, may need a little time on the ball to get back to his best, but the FC Pune City winger will give Chhangte a run for his money once he’s on his bike.
India may have not been the best side at this year’s Intercontinental Cup, but they’ve still been a better footballing side than they’ve been in the last two-three odd years. A lot of fans said – we’ll be happy with positive football, whatever the result. Now abide by it. Support the man and support the game and who knows, the results may come as well.