In what was billed as their biggest test till date, the Indian colts fell short against a strong Ghana side. The west Africans were dominant from start to finish, sweeping aside the Indian team 4-0.
This time though, coach Luis Norton de Matos had no scope for the “It could have been 2-1..” or “2-2” narrative that he has employed after the previous two defeats. His team was comprehensively outplayed in every department but the Portuguese put it down to a tiring team.
Two goals did come in the dying minutes of the game but that shouldn’t take anything away from the fact that unlike the previous two matches, India didn’t have a single moment where they truly threatened the Ghana goal or created a chance of some significance.
Yet, when the line-ups were announced, it felt like de Matos had finally opted to take the handbrakes off the team. The midfield, consisting of Jeakson Thounaojam, Suresh Wangjam and Amarjit Kiyam, combined physicality and passing ability while Nongdamba Naorem and Rahul KP played on either side of Aniket Jadhav, who returned to the line-up.
In defence, Namit Deshpande was benched as Jitendra Singh returned to the heart of defence alongside Anwar Ali, who was playing his third match in seven days.
For the first 20 minutes, India didn’t trouble the Ghana defence but certainly took the fight to the West Africans. The game was fought at an even pace, as Suresh pushed forward in what resembled a 4-2-3-1 formation by India to counter Ghana’s 4-3-3.
Soon enough though, Ghana asserted their superiority in midfield by pressing high up the pitch and looked to flood the Indian half with numbers, looking to unnerve De Matos’ boys. The ploy worked like a treat, as India soon retreated deep into the last third, playing a 4-5-1 as everyone bar Aniket defended the goal with their lives.
With De Matos later claiming that his boys tired after the half, perhaps this energy would have been better spent against Colombia? We will never know of the outcome of that ploy, but it was curious to see that India had tried to match Ghana’s pace with their own, especially in their third match in seven days.
The Portuguese also claimed that when bodies become physically tired, the thinking process goes out of the window. In such a case, why Amarjit and Nong, both supposedly struggling with injuries, had started, becomes a question of paramount importance.
As expected, both were replaced on the stroke of the hour, leaving the other tired legs to try and defend. Ghana made it easy for India in the first 40 minutes though, as they kept shooting from distance, long-rangers that didn’t ruffle Dheeraj and co but certainly drew the ire of visiting coach Samuel Febin.
As the half drew to a close, Sadiq Ibrahim whizzed past Sanjiv Stalin and drove in a low ball which Dheeraj could only parry to Eric Ayiah, as the Ghana captain swept home the rebound to give his team a crucial lead on the stroke of half-time. All of De Matos’ best-laid plans were undone in that one moment and as we’ve come to expect from the Portuguese, his lack of a plan ‘B’ laid the foundation for a rampant Ghana post half-time.
The Portuguese head-coach claimed that Ghana could have played eight matches in three days and could have remained fit. Surely he didn’t expect his own players to do the same? At half-time, pro-active decision making may have shored up the defence or midfield with an extra pair of fresh legs but no substitution came and soon Ghana were two to the good.
As Edmund Arko-Mensah drove to the touchline, he cut it back to Ayiah, whose instinctive left-footed finish gave Dheeraj no chance. Ayiah, scouted by Manchester City, had been quiet all tournament but chose this night to come up trumps.
Rahim Ali, Ninthoi and Lalengmawia were brought on but could make no difference as Ghana drove on in the last few minutes. The latter, a Mizo midfielder, was shrugged off the ball far too easily as Ayiah’s replacement, Richard Danso was clear through on goal and effortlessly put it past Dheeraj.
A minute later, Ibrahim Sulley’s shot hit the post and with a diving Dheeraj caught in the wrong position, all Emmanuel Toku had to do was to place it and so he did, to compound India’s misery.
In India’s last match of the tournament, the gulf in quality between them and the rest had become painfully clear. Ghana, meanwhile, will be relieved as they qualified for the Round of 16 and are potential title contenders.
Against Colombia and US, Ghana had 17 and 18 shots respectively while they racked up 27 shots here. The important part of that stat for Ghana was that while they managed a 35% shooting accuracy against Colombia (6 out of 17) and 16.6% against US (3 out of 18), they managed a marginally higher 37% accuracy, but their shots on target (10) were higher than in the previous two games combined.
As India’s midfield faded badly, it gave Ghana the license to shoot, one they took gleefully. For all of the praise that India’s defenders have garnered, Dheeraj Singh still had to face 65 shots in his three matches, 25 of which were on target.
The goalkeeper has saved 16 shots, the highest of any goalie throughout the tournament so far and on the balance of it, could have been protected better by his defence and midfield. All Ghana had to do was to keep peppering the Indian goal and hope Ayiah took his chances, which he did.
The half-time stats read 48% possession in favour of India, the highest they had garnered in a single half all tournament but stray passes and Ghana’s physicality and pressing buried them in the second period.
At the end, Febin offered a damning assessment of the game, “We have watched India and were hoping that India would turn up to the party but they didn’t do so today.” One will only hope that party master De Matos was listening.