SAFF Championship 2021 Review: India find their mojo after slow start
The Blue Tigers won their first title under head coach Igor Stimac.
The Indian national football team won their first silverware under Igor Stimac by clinching the SAFF Championship 2021 title. It wasn’t easy, but the Blue Tigers had an unbeaten campaign and only conceded two goals.
Despite a poor start to the tournament, Stimac’s side showed impressive resolve to lift the crown. They produced some impressive performances towards the end and have now won the SAFF Championship a record eight times.
In their opening game, India faced Bangladesh – a team they had defeated a few months ago. It started off well for India as Sunil Chhetri scored their first goal and they enjoyed decent control in the first half. However, things turned for the worse after the break.
The Bangladesh national team matched the Blue Tigers in the second half, despite being down to 10 men. They got their equalizer and snatched a valuable point, ensuring that Stimac’s side couldn’t start with a win.
Things went from bad to worse in the next game against Sri Lanka. India were extremely lethargic and produced what could only be defined as one of their worst performances in the last decade. The Blue Tigers looked clueless all game long, only getting one shot on target against one of the lowest-ranked teams in the world.
India ended up playing out a dull 0-0 draw, leading to a huge online backlash against the team and coach Stimac. However, the criticism seemed to fuel the boys. The Blue Tigers came back strong with a considerably better performance against Nepal. Sunil Chhetri’s late winner was enough to give them three points and boost their chances of making the final.
In their final group game, the Blue Tigers faced hosts Maldives in a must-win match. They thrived under the pressure, ousting the hosts with a compelling performance. A goal from Manvir Singh and a brace from Chhetri was enough to record an impressive 3-1 win, securing qualification into the final.
The Blue Tigers faced Nepal again in what was a rain-soaked finale. As it turned out, India excelled in that situation and shoved aside their opponents. After a frustrating first half, the Blue Tigers came out swinging early in the second.
Sunil Chhetri and Suresh Singh scored in the space of two minutes to give India a 2-0 lead. Sahal Abdul Samad then scored his first international goal in added-time, recording a resounding 3-0 win to help Stimac’s side lift the title.
When India needed a saviour in the SAFF Championship, captain Sunil Chhetri rose to the occasion. The Bengaluru FC man scored five of India’s eight goals in the tournament. He scored with his left foot, right foot and head! It involved slick finishes, impressive volleys and a brilliant header against Maldives.
Despite his age, Chhetri was India’s sharpest attacker all through the tournament and powered them forward. His movement and clever finishing tormented the opposition, leaving defenders in tatters. The Indian football team captain just keeps aging like fine wine.
He didn’t get to start the first few games, but once Lalengmawia got going, he cemented his place in the Indian football team. Apuia oozed confidence and composure in midfield, bringing a new layer of protection for the Blue Tigers. He helped India control the last few games with his impressive passing ability and also worked hard defensively.
Apuia also created chances occasionally and had a progressive attitude to his game. The youngster has proven that he’s ready to thrive on the international stage and could be the key to ensuring the success of Stimac’s system with the national team.
Arguably the breakout star of the tournament, Mohammad Yasir took his opportunities with both hands in the SAFF Championship. He was also introduced towards the end, but the versatile midfielder made an impressive impact in the big games. With his slick forward passes, Yasir ensured that India created quicker, more decisive attacking moves to trouble opponents.
His set-pieces also caused chaos, while his delivery into the final third was consistently impressive. The 23-year-old looked confident of his ability and executed his style really well. If able to maintain his consistency, Yasir should also be a mainstay in the national team going forward.
Coming off an impressive AFC Cup campaign with ATK Mohun Bagan, a lot of expectations were on Liston Colaco in the SAFF Championship. To his credit, he actually started really well – tormenting Bangladesh with his brilliant dribbling ability. But, Colaco just didn’t have the execution to get among the goals. He wasn’t able to score a single goal or even register an assist.
Colaco lost his place in the team towards the end and didn’t even feature in the final. With so many players emerging from the tournament, the attacker has to be more clinical going forward to gain a permanent spot in the starting XI.
Coach’s Report Card
Igor Stimac definitely took his time to get India properly going in the SAFF Championship. His tactics in the opening two games of the tournament were just not good enough. The Blue Tigers looked lethargic and uninterested in those first two matches. They were toothless in attack and lacked any identity in terms of playing style.
However, Stimac started bringing in improvements from the Nepal win and helped the team soar afterward. The Croatian manager managed to tap into the strong character and will of his boys.
His tactics improved as the games went on and his decision to play around Chhetri in attack also worked. Stimac still has to work on making India a more vibrant attacking unit and bring consistency in performances. Unless able to do that, the Blue Tigers won’t be able to outwit higher-ranked opposition anytime soon.
While the championship win deserves to be cherished, the Blue Tigers have to stay grounded. They won a tournament where all their opponents are well behind them in the FIFA Rankings. The first two games – especially the performance against Sri Lanka – proved that there’s much left to improve to compete with better teams.
Stimac has to stick to a winning formula going forward with the team. That involves playing a set starting XI and not making changes every game. It also means India have to stick to one playing style which suits them the best. Perhaps the big wins in the last few games have given the manager the clarity he needs to succeed going forward.
India also have to realize that they can’t be complacent against any team, regardless of their ranking. The Sri Lanka draw was perhaps the biggest example. The Indian football team also have to shuffle their attacking moves to keep the opposition guessing, because being predictable nearly cost them the championship.