This story started in Thailand, the land locked city of Buriram, on a hot and humid June afternoon; in a stadium where empty stands spelt out the words ‘Thunder Castle’ and the seats filled were mostly school children watching grown men warm up for a football game. It was the King’s Cup opener and Indian football team’s new coach, Igor Stimac, was in charge for the first time. This was the ‘new era’. He had won his appointment with a show of dedication and expertise, landing up for an in-person interview where his competitors preferred Skype. His new charges were up against Curacao, a team not just ranked higher but filled with players with more experience than the Indian side. Stimac was eyeing the skies when the anthems were playing, which was correct because after the loss it inspired him to provide reason.
“I think today we were very much like the weather. At one time the sun was shining, while in the second half there was a storm. After we changed few things in the half-time we started playing better,” he said.
Eight games and four months later, he was still making those changes at half time to force India into a game.
Except this time it wasn’t Curacao, it was Afghanistan. And it wasn’t indeterminate weather, but the chill in the air, a partisan crowd and opponents who refused to budge through 90 minutes. The end result was the same. India were flat and uninspired for the first 45 minutes of the game, robust and energized for half an hour of the second, before grabbing an equaliser in injury time — deservedly but unsatisfactorily.
“We are a team who prefers to push the limits when they're behind — that makes me proud,” Stimac said post match, which raises more questions than answers. True, this Indian team looks like it has not quit. Two games in a row they have gone down to inferior opposition, kept knocking at the door for an equaliser before grabbing it in the dying minutes. But surely they can push their limits without needing to concede first!
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“In the games against lower ranked opposition, where the onus is on India to create openings, we have struggled,” former India captain Renedy Singh says. “And that’s because our players are struggling to break them down, not being patient enough, and often just playing the safe option.”
Which is, in part, good news because India don’t play lower ranked opposition at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex in Muscat on November 19. They play Oman, a team 84th in the FIFA rankings who were grace visitors in Guwahati in September, allowing India to bask in the dream that they were going to win the game for 82 beautiful minutes, before pushing turbo, scoring twice and taking home all the points.
That performance, not two months ago was a massive improvement from Curacao, and even Afghanistan; sandwiched neatly between the two too. It was an Indian team with attacking verve, creativity, desire and an innate ability to create attacks from open play. Since that goal (scored by who else but him) was the last such goal India has scored in the qualifiers. That result was followed by a gritty draw against Qatar, and somehow, from Doha, India have picked up not just a point but also the bad habits the Qatar team indulged in that evening.
This, though, is chance for reset. Literally so, because from now a new round of fixtures commence. One entire cycle is done and India have three points from four games. Under Stephen Constantine, that was the total points India gathered from their entire World Cup qualifying campaign.
This India has impressed at times, especially considering the number of players who Stimac has called up for debuts. But they have their flaws, and most of them are at the back. Sandesh Jhingan’s long term absence means Stimac will rely on his second choice pair in the centre of defence against Oman. Anas Edathodika has returned to the squad and will be available for selection in Oman, but having played the least number of minutes of any member of the back four over the past month, his match fitness will be called into question.
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But the centre isn’t where the problems really are. Against Bangladesh Rahul Bheke was run ragged from the opening minute to the last by Bangladesh — and even Oman for a part of that game — and Mandar Rao Desai faced the same treatment on the other flank against Afghanistan — before thankfully being pulled at halftime.
In midfield, in the absence of Rowllin Borges — a man Stimac considers an essential part of the squad because of his ability to control and dictate the team’s pace of play — Pronay Halder will be doing the defensive shield work. Since that Curacao game, Halder has played in the starting XI only once under Stimac; that game was against Afghanistan in Dushanbe. If anything, in retrospect, Halder may not have been useful for that game.
As Renedy says reviewing that performance, Halder’s role as a shield, “makes him a safe option midfielder, who will not give enough creativity. He plays the ball short and safe, but does not create enough.”
Perhaps against Oman away, that is exactly what India need. On the other hand, a smash and grab job would also be a good bet.
Stimac’s first task will be to pick an XI on merit for position, or pick an XI that plays best as a team. If he picks the latter option, he will revert to the players who came out for the second half against Afghanistan. It will mean Ashique Kuruniyan, a natural winger will play at left back, and Farukh Choudhary will play on the wing. Their pace and in-built overlap tendencies will create a channel previously jammed by an orthodox defender.
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Cross over to the other wing and Udanta Singh will finally have some competition for his place. It is a far shot that Seimenlen Doungel will get a starting place, but he could easily be the option India have been looking for a while. His game style and sense is very different to his senior Manipuri colleague and his tendency to get deeper narrower in the box may well help Sunil Chhetri’s goal drought too. Even in a short cameo, Doungel’s movement and ability was eye catching against Afghanistan. He did more in his 10 minutes than many of his more accomplished teammates did over 90. That late, late goal — made in FC Goa — was textbook super sub contribution.
“It clearly shows that we are not ready to give up until the final whistle," Stimac said after that draw. It was perhaps more relief than pride, but the thought stuck. Fergie time is becoming Stimac time.
Minor problem, though. India may be scoring late, but they concede late too. Three of the four goals they have let through in the qualifying campaign have come right at the end of a period of play, and the only one that perhaps doesn’t qualify was Oman’s equaliser in the 82nd minute in Guwahati. There is a simple way to solve it, but the AIFF hasn’t figured it out yet (and talking more game time and competition is a piece in itself anyway).
Give up? No. But can they hold on? 45 minutes at a time please.
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