Mumbai, June 8: Two thumping wins against Chinese Taipei and Kenya meant that India had already secured a place in Sunday’s final even before they took to the field of their last round-robin engagement against New Zealand in the ongoing Intercontinental Cup in Mumbai on Thursday (June 7).
This meant the Indian head coach Stephen Constantine had the luxury of testing his bench strength as he builds a team for the AFC Asian Cup, 2019. But what transpired at the Mumbai Football Arena should give Constantine a headache as he tries to find solutions to the never-ending problems that the Indian team faces today.
Up against what was a third-string Kiwi side — the team largely consist of U-19 and U-21 players — the Indians were thoroughly out-smarted, out-thought and out-played in all departments of the game.
After conceding the opener in a very 'Loris Kariussque' way, the All Whites romped home to a deserving 2-1 win on the night that saw them creating more chances and threatening the Indian goal with their incessant waves of attack.
Constantine chose to rest as many as seven of his regulars and handed the likes of Amrinder Singh, Salam Ranjan Singh and Ashique Kuruniyan their first start in India Blues. Though a few hoped that these men who grab the opportunity and put a strong show for a place in the starting XI, none apart from Amrinder showed enough desire to even threaten to knock the experienced pros off their place in the Indian side.
The Indian mistakes didn’t end there. The Indian gaffer also used this game to test a style and delayed a 4-3-1-2, that saw Anirudh Thapa sit behind the two strikers Sunil Chhetri and Balwant Singh, instead of this usual 4-2-3-1.
Though the plan was to choke the Kiwis in their own half and pounce of the second ball to create and find an opening, with wingers Mohammed Rafique and Kuruniyan miles off their game, even this backfired as it allowed the Kiwis acres on space on the counter to charge out and build an attack of their own.
If formation and positional sense were not enough to make life hell for the Indians, their passing and anticipation in the night also went for a toss as they let the visitors boss the midfield with ease.
Even while on the backfoot, though their skipper Chhetri tried to get the team back in the game by trying to apply a high press and steal possession on the up, none of his teammates could read the move and close the gaps, often ending with Chhetri cutting a frustrating figure on the pitch.
Though Constantine tried to rectify his mistake and substituted Rafique midway into the opening half, something that could also signal the end of the road for the East Bengal winger in India colours, nothing could alter his team’s fortunes for the night.
The change in personnel against the All Whites was an indication that the coach was willing to give fringe players an opportunity to prove their worth and punch their tickets for UAE, 2019. But with what one saw on Thursday, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Constantine ends up pointing fingers and the quality that he has found in India off late.
Salam Rajan was miserable to say the least, often keeping the spectators on the edge of their seats not with his defensive brilliance, but because of the lack of it as India survived the opening half by the skin of their teeth.
Full-backs Narayan Das and Pritam Kotal had another night to forget as both were found wanting on either side of the pitch. However, with not many full-backs having impressed in the domestic leagues, it’s difficult to say who can Constantine bring in if not for these guys. Yes, Rahul Bheke has had a fine season with Bengaluru FC, but then the Mumbai lad is error-prone, a problem that has cost his club quite often than not.
In the attack, while Chhetri and Jeje Lalpekhluah are all but certain to lead the Indian side, the slot for a third striker is still open, especially after Balwant Singh’s performance on Thursday.
When asked about the same in the post-match media briefing, the Indian coach chose to side-step the question giving an indication that even he agrees with the problem but chose not to address it in a public domain.
While this competition might have lost its sheen primarily because of the reluctance shown by the visiting team to field their strongest sides, India’s struggle against a mediocre Kiwi outfit has definitely stirred up a hornets' nest. The AIFF can finally breathe a sigh of relief as it as achieved one of its goals from this competition, at least.