If there was a rule to award a team a point for 90 minutes of truly desperate defending irrespective of the outcome, then it would have definitely gone to the Indian football team in Doha’s Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium on Thursday night. But since football rules maintain a winner-takes-all policy, India had nothing to gain from the 0-1 defeat against Qatar.
Instead, it further compounded India’s position in Group E of the World Cup qualifiers, especially after Afghanistan’s 1-1 draw against Bangladesh a little before India took the pitch. Any ambition India harbour to finish third or fourth in the group has become more difficult to achieve. Afghanistan now have five points from six matches, while India are stuck at three from six.
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Bangladesh are now at the bottom of the five-team table with two points. Since they too would like to come out of the last position that will force them to go for a play-off for the Asian Cup qualifiers, the Jamie Day-coached side could be expected to go all out in their next match against India on June 7. Any slip-up on India’s part could hand over the advantage to their lower-ranked rivals.
Given the current trend of Indian football, where headline management is considered more important than actual improvement on the pitch, lots of attempts will surely be made to paint India’s narrow defeat against Asian champions Qatar as yet another monumental show of grit and determination. In reality, it was like Shakespeare’s “airy nothing” as Qatar simply toyed with India throughout the tie with nearly 70 percent of ball possession. That they couldn’t score more than once was their own shortcoming – there was also a time when Felix Sanchez’s boys looked more interested in playing passes among themselves than increasing their tally of goals.
Qatar can’t be blamed for taking things lightly. Having already qualified for the World Cup on the strength of being the hosts and with 19 points in their pocket, they are simply the runaway winners in this group stage. If they were looking to sharpen their passing skills in the attacking third, it was an investment made for the future.
Igor Stimac, meanwhile, was not looking to get anything beyond one point – a practical move indeed. That he took the field with five defenders and left creative midfielders like Brandon Fernandes and Sahal Abdul Samad out of the starting XI only confirmed his thinking. He almost succeeded in his plan, but the relentless Qatari pressure and a red card by the 18th minute put paid to his hopes.
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Rahul Bheke definitely let India down. And badly. To reduce your team to 10 men after just 18 minutes played, that too against the continent’s finest side is unpardonable. Both his yellow card offences were avoidable. He did not do any favour to his team or to his own reputation as an international footballer.
On the contrary, defenders like Subhasis Bose, who was unceremoniously ousted from the previous tour and Ashique Kuruniyan did a far better job even though they were one-man short in defence. Skipper for the second half Sandesh Jhingan thankfully looked assured in his role in the centre of defence and came to the team’s rescue more than once. Pity that upcoming footballers like Suresh Singh Wangjam and Glan Martins were forced to play the role of destructive defenders and had little opportunity to showcase their skills. India had little to do with attacking – yet young Manvir Singh’s approach to the game caught the attention of the fans.
All said and done, in the end, it fetched little – not even the marked improvement that has always been propagated loudly enough by the current managers of Indian football. In 180 minutes of two matches against Qatar, Stimac’s men conceded only one goal. True, but what about the rest of the stats? In 180 minutes, they had only one clear sight of the rival goal. On Thursday night, Qatar played a staggering 659 passes to India’s 235. Is it the best way to take Indian football forward at the international arena?
When India qualified for the 2019 Asian Cup under Stephen Constantine, a senior footballer pointed out (in private, of course) that the qualification came more because of exemplary show from certain individuals. To attribute it to great team work would be slightly exaggerated, he felt.
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The matches against Qatar were eerily similar. While the Asian champions wasted innumerable chances, sometimes playfully, the classic performance of goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu (in both games) cannot be missed. He was not only a picture of confidence under the bar, his skills will undoubtedly make him a role model for youngsters.
With a few more years on the pitch still left in him, Gurpreet is definitely on his way to be bracketed with the country’s all-time great goalkeepers. If Peter Thangaraj set the record of playing two Olympics and three Asian Games, he was blessed with legendary defenders like Jarnail Singh and Arun Ghosh in front of him. Bhaskar Ganguly had some sparkling moments at the international arena, but he too was assisted by two towering rough and tough central defenders like Manoranjan Bhattacharya and GS Parmar. Gurpreet doesn’t enjoy any of those luxuries.
Despite the defeat, the lone takeaway from the match was India’s ability to maintain the shape in defence though it came at the expense of a nearly non-existence attacking plan. But can the team repeat the show in their next two matches against Bangladesh and Afghanistan? Anything below six points from these two matches would be a disappointment. In the previous rounds, Stimac’s boys did brilliantly against Qatar, but nothing beyond that. Sunil Chhetri and party hit a real low against Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
There are definite signs that Stimac’s days as India coach could be truly numbered and a call may be taken after the World Cup qualifiers. Stimac further complicated things by embarrassing the national federation when he said he was not happy with the preparations of the team. The furor it created internally didn’t do any good to the team’s focus. With all these problems around, the team did a decent job by keeping the scoreline to bare minimum against the mighty Qatar. But then, the real test will be in the next two matches.
Stimac has made the boys learn how to defend against superior opponents. But has he taught them how to win games? Having gone 11 matches without a win, it is time the Croatian coach delivered the goods.
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