The Indian men’s football team formed a tight huddle after scoring the solitary goal against Nepal that earned them all three points at the SAFF Championship in Maldives for the first time in the 2021 edition after three matches.

The emotions were of joy, but also more of relief. India over the years have suffered more than they have celebrated on a football field, but the SAFF Championship is a stage where they have been able to rejoice a lot more often.

India have won two-thirds of the matches they’ve played in this competition’s history but in Male, Maldives that ratio hasn’t quite held up. The Blue Tigers started the competition with two draws against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka until they huffed and puffed to a victory against Nepal in their third match.

It was only a 1-0 win, a below-par one considering India’s record in the SAFF Championship. Over the years, India have averaged 1.8 goals per game in this tournament so winning a game by scoring just one goal can be considered as an underachievement for a side still ranked considerably above its rivals in the competition.

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Improved show

But in the context of India’s performances and results in the ongoing tournament, the display against Nepal was an improved one.

India’s passing, their build-up play, chance creation and defending on transitions were the best they have displayed in the tournament so far.

It required a tweak in tactics and also personnel change for the slight uptick in performance, but coach Igor Stimac, who has come under a lot of criticism especially after the last two games, got most things right for the game against Nepal.

India played with a slightly lopsided formation on the pitch. Manvir Singh was the central striker while Chhetri starting on the left on paper, drifted centrally and constantly made runs in the channels. It allowed Mandar Rao Dessai to move upfront and play almost as an auxiliary winger throughout the game. On the other side, Yasir Mohammad played out wide. Naturally left-footed, he was expected to cut inside but the young forward mixed it up quite well as he came in on certain occasions while hugged the touchline a few other times, keeping the Nepal defenders guessing.

In midfield, Brandon Fernandes often dropped deep to receive the ball from his centre-backs and tried to build India’s attacks. In the first half, India continued to have the hangover from their previous games where the centre-backs took far too many touches and slowed the build-up down. They were also reluctant to push forward in the space afforded to them.

That changed in the second half as the centre-backs were a bit more aggressive in progressing the ball, allowing the midfielders to stay close to each other in more advanced areas of the pitch and push Nepal further back in their own half.

The best part of India’s performance was their defending on defensive transitions. Nepal who had largely played on the counter-attack during the tournament had scored four goals in two matches but India didn’t allow them a shot on target and they barely managed to enter India’s half as India were quick to press and deny Nepal any space to play out, a big improvement from the Bangladesh match.

India though, as they have been under Stimac, were quite poor in the final third. The final ball was often poor and the decision-making was not up to the mark. It was the reason why Nepal, despite only having 25% of ball possession and rarely crossing into India half, managed to hold on for 82 minutes.

A direct route to goal

But the aspect that was different in comparison to the previous two matches was a more defined approach in attack. There was some pattern to the way the Indian strikers moved. Chhetri and Manvir Singh constantly made runs into the channels and the Indian centre-backs often tried to find their runs through direct long balls.

A move in the 44th minute almost gave India the opening goal through this route. Rahul Bheke found Chhetri’s run into the space between Nepal’s defenders. The Indian captain who engaged the defenders around him cushioned the header in Manvir Singh’s path who had made a run into the space that had opened up. Unfortunately, he was let down by his first touch as the chance went begging.

India had more joy when playing through a more direct route. India’s best chances in the game either came through crosses or long balls played into the forwards. Given their struggles in playing through opponents in the first two games, this was an obvious alternative and something that the previous coaches had relied on.

India’s goal also came through the aerial route. A lot of credit for it should go to substitute Farukh Choudhary who didn’t just make a clever run into a pocket of space inside the box but also flicked a lofted ball into a dangerous area where Chhetri, in quite a characteristic manner, was present to pounce.

The Indian captain was having an off day in front of goal as he had squandered two other clear chances before scoring. Manvir Singh too had a header superbly saved in the second half. While no other players apart from the two carried a goal threat, the positive for India was that at least its demarcated strikers had chances coming their way, something that was missing in the last two matches.

Long way to go

India deserved the victory over Nepal but they are expected to have such a performance of authority when they face a team of the quality of their neighbours almost every time. What makes this hard-fought win look much more handsome is the team’s performance in the last two matches that were one of the poorest ones in quite some time. Under Stimac, this was India’s most commanding performance in a victory as the previous three were just about barely merited.

India may still go onto win the SAFF Championship but the struggle they’ve had to endure in the tournament so far in every game shows that the standards have dropped. India’s win against Nepal could be a start, but the Blue Tigers have a painfully long way to go, just to restore its lost stature.