Striker Manvir Singh won the top scorer award for his goals in the tournament. 

Seven did not turn eight as India faltered in their so-far perfect 2018 SAFF Championship against the Maldives in the final on Saturday. Fans at the Bangabandhu Stadium in Bangladesh witnessed a different Blue Tigers side as the Subhashish Bose-led outfit looked adrift and lost, with midfielder Anirudh Thapa’s sails halted by some precise man marking.

Maldives won their second SAFF title, defeating India in both finals. They won the 2008 edition with a solitary goal from Mukhthar Naseem in the decider. Against a U-23 Indian side, the Maldivians certainly deserved the 2-1 victory. The Red Snappers looked more committed to the cause, more determined to score and fought bravely.

Watch: India 1-2 Maldives highlights

Now that the tournament is over, India must look at the bigger picture. Here, we look at five pointers that India noted and Stephen Constantine must adhere and contemplate about.

Why was Jerry Lalrinzuala on the bench?

Jerry Lalrinzuala, arguably India’s best young left back at moment, did not start the opening game against Sri Lanka. Fitness issues, maybe, or maybe the stake of Subhashish Bose was higher after the Intercontinental Cup heights that he reached. In the next game against the Maldives, Jerry was handed a start.

The Chennaiyin FC lad played his heart out, kept a clean sheet, while also managing to assist one, something we don’t generally associate with an Indian full-back playing for Stephen Constantine, because he usually wants his defence to sit deep. Surprisingly, Jerry was benched for the rest of the tournament, and Sarthak Golui was called back in central defence as Subhashish Bose shifted left.

Golui’s horrendous errors against Pakistan gave the arch-rivals two sniffs at goal, and yet, the FC Pune City defender kept his place for the final. The second goal in the decider had his name and mistake written all over it. It could have been a different story, had Jerry played at LB, and Subhashish at LCB.

Chhangte’s absence affected India’s attacking prowess

The Mizo lad received a red card in the semi-final fixture 

Who would’ve thought this to happen? A fairly healthy I-league campaign at DSK Shivajians, a strong ISL with NorthEast United and a Lallianzuala Chhangte still found him sitting back home whenever the Indian national team was playing. A semi-brilliant campaign at Delhi Dynamos did not help matters. Chhangte still did not make the squad for the Intercontinental Cup.

Then one fine morning, Stephen Constantine decided that he wants to play a U-23 team at the SAFF Cup, and the call came. You can’t keep talents like him out, can you? The Mizo lad came in, played like he always plays and scored and assisted for fun. He was questionably red-carded in the semi-final win against Pakistan, and the absence was set to affect proceedings.

No one, though, had expected the enormity of his absence. India had virtually attacked for pleasure throughout the tournament but failed to conjure the magic in the final, and it coincided with Chhangte’s absence. Mere coincidence, or was he really the key for the Blue Tigers?

Salam Ranjan and Anirudh Thapa’s coming of age

Anirudh Thapa had a matured showing throughout the tournament

Let go of the aberration in the final, and you would still commend these two for their maturity and the kind of responsibility they took to lead their team to the finals. Ranjan helped India through the group stage without conceding while Anirudh was the needle orchestrating every thread that India managed to hook against every opposition. Thapa crumbled under pressure in the final, and for someone who’s aged 20, it’s a learning curve.

Yet, the way these two dominated their specific areas of the field was commendable, and the cherry on the cake was lost, only due to the defeat in the final. These two are certainly taking the flight to UAE, and will have a role to play.


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Unsung star for India in the tournament

Not a lot of votes would come in pouring, but Farukh Chaudhary remained unflustered – by starts, by numbers and by positions. The Jamshedpur FC midfielder played the No. 10 and second striker role with aplomb and was consistent throughout the tournament. Farukh co-ordinated everything in the opposition half, worked tirelessly hard and a part of Manvir Singh’s impeccable performances must be credited to him.

The youngster showed enough desire to make runs, and while the balls did not come in over the defensive line, it certainly pulled defenders away from Manvir and Sumeet Passi to make space for them. This helped India on a number of occasions and the fact that India scored eight goals can be attributed to Farukh’s selfless playmaking and hard work on the pitch.

No plan B if plan A falters

Ironically, complacency looked fresh in the Indian team in the title decider, and the lack of a plan B stared manager Stephen Constantine in the face. It was a little too obvious, with Khel Now managing to predict the starting XI absolutely right, and that must’ve been the case of the opposition as well.

Marking Anirudh Thapa out of the game, attacking between the lines and pressing Sarthak Golui high to lead him into making mistakes, the Maldivian coach got his match strategy spot on. Sadly, India only had Sumeet Passi to call upon from the bench, and the forward added to his goal tally a little too late in the game for India to come back.

The country needs to take this defeat on its chin, but this must teach Stephen Constantine to have a plan B, and that should not be hitting a long ball and expect Sunil Chhetri to do the rest. Not at the AFC Asian Cup, the continent’s showpiece.