As with Sunil Chhetri in the match against Kenya, the Mizo sniper Jeje Lalpekhlua celebrated a landmark (his 50th game) in international colours on Thursday. Unlike Chhetri, however, there was to be no happy occasion for Jeje as India lost 1-2 in their last group stage match.
India’s bench strength came under question against New Zealand at the Mumbai Football Arena on Thursday.
Up against an inexperienced and under-strength New Zealand side, they were thoroughly outclassed by the Kiwis who won the match comfortably after conceding a poor opening goal. As far as clear-cut chances go, those were all created by the visitors while India barely had a sniff of the goal.
Stephen Constantine made seven changes to the side that started the matches against Kenya and Chinese Taipei. Salam Ranjan started at the back as Amrinder Singh started in goal.
Constantine strayed from his usual 4-2-3-1 formation to try out a previously untested 4-3-1-2 with Anirudh Thapa sitting in behind Sunil Chhetri and Balwant Singh. Rowllin held fort in the middle of the park, while Mohammed Rafique and Ashique Kuruniyan lined up either side of him.
In attack, Rafique and Kuruniyan pushed high up the pitch to compress the space that New Zealand had, in an attempt to choke them. While it was a good idea to press a superior ball-playing team and pressure them into making a mistake, the implementation wasn’t sound as Constantine would have preferred.
Kuruniyan, the 20-year-old from Pune City, was less than effective going forward and dilly-dallied on the ball, often breaking the momentum of attacks, taking up too much time. Rafique failed to beat his man and sprayed a couple of passes astray.
With India’s wide men in disarray, the head coach mercifully pulled the plug on the experiment, hooking Rafique off with only 28 minutes on the clock. Post-match, the Englishman spoke about some of the reserves not taking their chances when asked to step up. You’ve got to believe that this is the end of Rafique’s Asian Cup dream.
With seven of the regulars rested, this was a chance for many of the fringe players to stake a claim for a berth in India’s 23-man-squad for UAE 2019. Of those asked to step up, only Amrinder Singh can actually come away with some amount of credibility from the match.
Salam Ranjan Singh was all over the shop in the centre of defence, not able to clear his lines without giving Constantine mini panic-attacks and was regularly beaten in the air. Unreliable is the only word to describe the central defender, as New Zealand should really have had a goal or two before half-time.
The less said about Rafique the better, as Narayan Das had a quiet game down the left. Both Subhasish Bose and Jerry Lalrinzuala are ahead of him in the pecking order, and deservedly so. Das offers little in attack and isn’t the paciest of full-backs, so it is easy to see why Constantine has lost his patience with him.
The attempt to play Balwant close to Chhetri was designed to get the best out of the ATK forward’s strengths. Pace hasn’t been the Hoshiarpur-born forward’s asset but guile, link-up play and movement have been. On Thursday, India’s attack created precious little as the New Zealand defence had a relatively quiet evening.
“If I needed to take a point from this game, we would have got it. We knew the job was done in the first two games.”
This statement by the Indian head coach was irreponsible, and inaccurate given that India had played close to their first-choice eleven in the second half, making six changes. The truth is that India were outplayed by a completely new New Zealand XI, many of whom made their debuts in this tournament.
Blaming the bench was shirking away from the fact that India were technically second best on the day, and could and should have lost by a larger margin. Instead of easing in the youngsters and substitutes throughout the course of the tournament, Constantine decided to lump them all in the same match.
Asked to sink or swim, the much-changed 11 held fort till the second half, when Constantine brought his big guns out. His big guns failed to fire, and the reserves became the scapegoats for a lackadaisical display.
With a high possibility that India will face the All-Whites in the final on the 10th, it will be interesting to see if Constantine reverts to his old tactics.