The India men’s football team won the SAFF Championship in Male, Maldives. At the start of this tournament, this result was not supposed to be in doubt. But the way this competition panned out, India had to dig deep to ensure their superiority prevailed.
The Blue Tigers beat Nepal 3-0 in the final to take the crown in emphatic fashion, but for Igor Stimac’s men, the ride till that point had been a struggle.
India were held to a 1-1 draw by ten-man Bangladesh before failing to score in a 0-0 stalemate against Sri Lanka. Then they overcame Nepal thanks to a late Sunil Chhetri goal before upping their performance in the 3-1 victory over the Maldives to qualify for the final.
In the end, India produced their best display in the final, but the tournament was harder than many Indian football fans would have expected.
The tournament also served as precious preparation for the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers, and looking ahead to that campaign, here are the key takeaways that Indian football faithful can take away from the SAFF Championship.
Players show spirit
India came into the SAFF Championship as favourites but also on a run of three wins in 17 matches. The Blue Tigers were still expected to breeze past their opponents but it didn’t quite happen. Their performance against Bangladesh who played with ten men for a good part of the second half and a Sri Lanka side that could barely get into India’s lacked purpose.
Stimac’s men looked devoid of ideas when their opponents threw challenges at them. It improved slightly against Nepal in the next game, where there were a few patterns to India’s play. But they had to really battle hard to take all three points in that match. The display though showed the character of the team who managed to put in a decent performance despite the huge pressure they were under. In the end, they won 1-0 but should have won by a bigger margin.
India’s performance against the Maldives again wasn’t the best but enough to win by a bigger margin than the previous game. It wasn’t an easy game as the Maldives, the best team apart from India on paper, were backed well by a passionate crowd. India in a must-win game did well to overcome these challenges.
The level got better in the final, where India seemed a lot more assured about what they were doing after two consecutive wins.
While the level of opponents wasn’t great, India and Stimac deserve some credit for slowly raising their performance levels especially after being under a lot of pressure.
“We made this one special because we weren’t so good in the first two games. Was tough from there to come up & play the way we did. It’s good. It’s not outstanding & we can do better but look at all the young ones... it feels good for all of them,” Chhetri said summing up the tournament for India.
Youngsters stand up
The biggest positive for India would the performances of some of the young players in the squad who managed to step up under a lot of pressure.
The brightest spot was in the midfield where Lalengmawia and Suresh Singh Wangjam took responsibility and delivered some really noteworthy performances. Their work rate and pressing was the highlight and it stopped teams from causing India a lot of problems on the counter-attack.
The duo showed a lot of personality and captain Chhetri was quick to appreciate it. He gave his player of the match award after the win over Maldives to Lalengmawia and also heaped praise on Wangjam.
“I wish I had two Player-of-the-match awards as I could then give one each to Lalengmawia and Suresh. They have been outstanding,” Chhetri said ahead of the final.
“When coach selected them, they didn’t have an iota of doubt about themselves and then to play the way they did was incredible in such pressure games was incredible,” he added.
Wangjam also marked a great tournament with a goal in the final. The man who made that goal, Yasir Mohammad was also a big positive for India.
He made the place on that right flank his own and was a threat from that position in the last three matches. He has a great left foot and he produced a few crosses of the quality that India have been crying out for. India would need his creativity and precision in the Asian Cup qualifiers when they’ll get lesser time on the ball.
Sunil Chhetri, Indian football’s ageless wonder
It won’t be an exaggeration to say that India wouldn’t have won the SAFF Championship had it not been for Chhetri. They may have probably failed to reach the final too.
At the 37, the consistency with which Chhetri performs is remarkable. Scoring the number of goals that he does while playing for a team that isn’t the most creative speaks volumes about the Indian captain’s ability.
His movement and sharpness inside the box make him a nightmare for defenders as Nepal found it out the hard way twice. His five goals in as many matches at the SAFF Championship earned him the top scorer and the MVP prize, but he means a lot more to Indian football. He single-handedly elevates the level of the national team and has been doing so for so many years.
For Chhetri, it’s all about making the most of whatever’s left of his playing career.
“I have a very simple mantra, I tell myself ‘dost khade ho ja, bohot kam time bacha hai aur bohot kam games baaki hai, chup chaap khade ho ja. (friend, get up, there’s very little time left and very few games left, so kindly get up without any fuss)’” Chhetri had said ahead of the final.
“I tell myself to stop crying, rejoicing too much, or putting myself down because it’s a fact that this (my career) will end soon. Somedays I’ll score and somedays I won’t but right now I aim to give my best. Don’t want to leave any stone unturned or have regrets,” he added.
For Indian football fans, they’ll hope to have Chhetri for as long as possible as a player who can fill his boots isn’t anywhere in sight.
Plenty of areas to improve
India deserve credit for bouncing back from a couple of bad results to win the SAFF Championship, but if you analyse their performances with a broader perspective, there is still a lot to be desired.
Even against teams that were ranked considerably lower than them, India struggled to sustain spells of pressure in the opponents’ half for too long in matches. There were patches in certain games where they looked threatening but they failed to maintain those spells for a longer period of time to win more comfortably.
Against the Maldives, India lost control of the match for some periods of the game and a side with better quality could have punished them.
India’s build-up play during most matches was slow and laborious and it allowed opponents to settle into their shape and making it hard for the Blue Tigers to break them down. Against better teams that allow players lesser time on the ball, India could be found wanting and could be vulnerable to quick transitions once they lose the ball.
Stimac seemed to have settled on a starting XI, but it remains to be seen if a midfield of Lalengmawia, Suresh Singh Wangjam and Brandon Fernades or Anirudh Thapa can provide enough cover for the defence against stronger teams.
The Asian qualifiers will test all these aspects of the Indian team. That the Blue Tigers enter such a crucial campaign without being tested against stronger teams is also a cause for concern.
The SAFF Championship win only eases the pressure on coach Stimac for the time being as he still has a win percentage of less than 30 as the Indian coach. The trophy is great but Stimac will have to extract a similar level of performance from the team at the Asian Cup qualifiers which going by the SAFF Championship campaign is anything but guaranteed.