It was a historic night for Indian football. A thumping header by Jeakson Singh Thanoujam into the Colombian net meant that India had scored their first ever goal in a Fifa World Cup. That the team still lost 2-1 hardly mattered to the thousands of Indian fans that had turned up at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi, as Luis Norton de Matos’s boys received a standing ovation at the end of 90 minutes.
However, could India have got more from the match?
One of the evident areas of concern was De Matos’s inflexibility in his tactics. Over the course of 180 minutes, he refused to unchain the shackles he had placed onto his team. Defensively, his team had done well and that was down to the Portuguese’s organisation of his players in two banks of four.
But one fears that De Matos’s uncompromising attitude towards fifth-gear football has eroded the team’s creative zip. More on that later. First, let’s go through the match from the beginning.
Rahul hits the post
De Matos had made four changes to his line-up, bringing in Jeakson, Boris Thangjam, Rahim Ali and Namit Despande, with Suresh Wangjam, Aniket Jadhav, Komal Thatal and Jitendra Singh dropping to the bench against Colombia.
The South Americans, as expected, dominated most of the possession but India defended deep, much like the first game, albeit with more of a positive intent. Colombia played their usual 4-3-3 and as in their first game, their attack turned out to be uni-dimensional, as No 7 Jaminton Campaz on the left-wing was their preferred choice of outlet.
Boris, on India’s right wing was as expected – tenacious and industrious – as he stuck to Campaz and did a number on the latter that George de Mestral, the inventor of Velcro, would have been proud of.
The right-back, returning to the team, also created some of India’s best attacking play as his pass to Abhijit Sarkar saw the No 10 exchange passes with Rahim Ali, finding himself through on goal before shooting it straight against the keeper Kevin Mier.
India’s best chance of the half came in stoppage time when Boris, running in from the right, nudged the ball diagonally to Rahul KP, who had a clear shot at goal on the edge of the box. The Kerala-born winger chested the ball down, before unleashing a shot with his left foot that crashed against the post.
Colombia had a reprieve after their sterile domination of ball possession had seen India carve out the better opportunities. The home team and De Matos would have taken this half-time scoreline as a thrilling second half awaited the two sides.
An early substitution for the Colombian team meant that India, playing a 4-4-1-1, were pushed back. Juan Penaloza, who started off as provisional wing-back and was pushed up top later in the match, cut in from the right, skipped past Sanjeev Stalin, and struck it well past Dheeraj as Colombia lead 1-0.
If one thought that the goal would stir De Matos into action against a tired Colombian side, it didn’t happen. The Portuguese took another 17 minutes to make for a substitution, removing Sarkar for Aniket Jadhav.
It was criminal of De Matos to not use all three of his subs as India chased the game. Jeakson was firefighting in the middle of the park, using his physicality to keep the Colombian midfield at bay. Amarjit Kiyam beside him looked anonymous as the game passed the captain by.
Anwar Ali and Namit Deshpande had been fantastic at the heart of defence as Rahul KP slid to the right-back’s position once Boris had been withdrawn for Nongdamba Naorem. Anwar and Ninthoi were just two of the many cramping up. A fresh fair of legs would have helped against a Colombia side which had wilted in the last 10 minutes against Ghana.
Jeakson’s goal arrived from a Sanjeev Stalin corner but the euphoria was dampened almost immediately as Penaloza, now playing up top, was played onside by Deshpande before Gustavo Carvajal looped the ball up to him to score and snatch the initiative back for his team.
The goal came from a lapse in concentration as Dheeraj was powerless to stop Penaloza’s poke. This followed a pattern which had started in the first game when Jitendra Singh’s tackle had conceded a penalty.
The old adage that teams are most vulnerable after scoring rang true even as the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium cheered the team on till the final whistle. “It was like they were in a dream after scoring the goal,” said De Matos after the game, words that would hold true as the team were given a thunderous ovation at full-time.
Playing with the handbrake on
Spare a moment for goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh, though, who had another solid game between the sticks despite conceding two goals. Anwar, Rahul KP, Boris and Jeakson have managed to keep their heads above water but the goalkeeper has been India’s best player over the two games. He added another five saves to the five he made against the US and with an ever-increasing reach, he will be attracting his fair share of suitors at the domestic level.
Colombia outnumbered India’s chances by a ratio of three to one. The host’s defensive rigidity meant that they saw less of the ball and most of their momentum was lost in transition. When India did break, they inevitably did turn the ball over more than once, as insufficient numbers were present on the counter.
On corners, as many as three or four players would remain near the halfway line and as few as three or four blue shirts attacked set-pieces. The transition from attack to defence and vice versa has given India the most trouble as their final goals conceded in both the matches have come from exposed defences.
Their inability to get into a passing rhythm remains one of the biggest challenges but De Matos will have to concede that his tactics against the US backfired, while against Los Cafeteros, it allowed India to play to their limits and strengths. There were phases when the team needed the coach’s enthusiasm and approval to go forward.
It would be harakiri to suggest that India play expansively against opponents of higher calibre throughout the 90, but it would not go amiss to point out that the coach can gamble on a high pressure period when the team is in the ascendancy.
The scoreline and the play did improve but a win was certainly within India’s sights, and so was a draw. Colombia and the US have demonstrated that the World Cup is a different kettle of fish, with a higher calibre of chance takers.
De Matos had himself talked about the fact that his team needed six chances to score while others with more competitive experience would need two or three. So why not enable the team to create more chances? The curbing of expression may have cost India a point on an otherwise historic night for Indian football.