Finally, a change in script. Igor Stimac’s men ended their two-year wait for a victory in international football on last night (June 8, 2021) with a 2-0 win over Bangladesh in the World Cup qualifiers at Doha. It fetched them three points and kept them in the race for a third place finish in the five-team group.
The last time India won a match was on June 8, 2019, a 1-0 triumph over hosts Thailand in the King’s Cup. Since then, they had gone winless in 11 matches on the trot despite the coach’s repeated assurance the team were improving steadily.
Given the circumstances, the victory over Bangladesh, ranked 184, compared to India’s 105, came as a sigh of relief though any talk of an improved performance will surely kick-off a huge debate. Struggling to find the target till the 79th minute despite having absolute command over the proceedings, the game was finally settled because of the brilliance of India’s 37-year-old skipper Sunil Chhetri.
No wonder, Stimac was grinning from ear to ear once the match was over. It has been 730 days since his team won a game. He had his hands on Chhetri’s shoulders and was spotted having a long chat. After all, without those two fine strikes from Chhetri, the coach most probably would have returned to his hotel room with yet another forgettable day behind him. To say Chhetri saved him from lots of embarrassment would not be an exaggeration.
Chhetri’s international tally of goals is now up to 74. But then, his importance in Indian football shouldn’t be judged by the number of goals alone – perhaps no one in Indian football history has struck so many times at crucial junctures and when the national team had their backs to the wall.
Chhetri had been doing it for many years; even when his place in the playing eleven wasn’t fully secured. In the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup, India needed a win over Myanmar to move to the final. With half a dozen stitches on his forehead, Chhetri leapt high to score the only goal of the match on a rain-marred pitch in Hyderabad. A week later, he scored a hat-trick against Tajikistan in the final in Delhi to take India to 2011 Asian Cup final rounds after 24 years.
Against Bangladesh in Doha on Monday, Chhetri didn’t even celebrate after his clinical strike off a pass from Suresh Wangjam that made it 2-0 for India. It was understandable. After all, He had been involved in similar acts so many times before. India would not have qualified for the 2019 Asian Cup without Chhetri’s two crucial strikes against Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan. The six points collected from the two matches took India to the top of the group.
Yet, the Doha match on Monday night brought back the memories of an outing India played nearly five years ago. In 2016, the national team were reeling under criticism after a series of defeats in World Cup qualifiers. Chief coach Stephen Constantine’s job was very much on the line when India met Puerto Rico in a friendly tie in Mumbai. Against a team ranked 38 places higher than India, Chhetri came up with a stunning performance to help India win 4-1. Any talk of changing the coach was dropped immediately.
This is not to suggest a poor result against Bangladesh would have cost Stimac his position. But the Croatian is certainly on a sticky wicket after his not too impressive show in the last two years. The technical committee of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has recently agreed to give him an extension only for three months.
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Apart from the two goals, India did not have much to brag about from the Bangladesh match though they had a ball possession of more than 70 per cent. They attacked relentlessly only to mess up things in the attacking third. Chances were created but wasted. Bangladesh were a team with limited resources and ambitions. They looked clearly happy to take home just one point. Understandably, Jamie Day’s boys crowded the defence. A jungle of legs made India’s task difficult. At the same time, Bangladesh should be credited for maintaining the shape until Chhetri decided to upset all calculations in the last 12 minutes.
His opening strike was a beauty. Ashique Kuruniyan had a decent game against Qatar, but was surprisingly omitted from the starting eleven against Bangladesh. He finally made his way at the start of the second half and provided the well-rehearsed cross for Chhetri. The Indian captain came up with a deft header from a difficult angle that had the Bangladesh goalkeeper completely beaten.
Critics may say the euphoria over the win over Bangladesh is one of those typical over-reaction of a result-starved Indian football fanverse. In reality, however, the win has brought back the almost non-existence self confidence in Indian football. To be without a win for two long years is not easy. The victory against Bangladesh is like breaking a hoodoo.
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Again, things could be difficult when India meets Afghanistan in the last match on June 15. Qatar and Oman are now leading the Group E with 22 and 12 points, respectively, and have qualified for the second round and the Asian Cup. India are at third place with six points, followed by Afghanistan five and Bangladesh two. Afghanistan are likely to come all guns blazing against India to grab the third place. India certainly have the advantage – all they need is to draw the match to secure the third position. But it’s a tricky situation that sometimes makes a team vulnerable.
Stimac has the edge here. He has a week in hand to train for the crucial tie and allow his boys to get the necessary rest. Ideally, it makes sense to use the same combination which did duty against Bangladesh, but the coach is not famous for such practices. Whatever it is, Stimac would have to be extra careful with his defence. Else, all the success against Bangladesh may prove to be a temporary one.