Indian Football

Intercontinental Cup: Midfield conundrum might be coming to an end for India

The team was as usual, over-reliant on Sunil Chhetri, who scored eight of the 11 goals this tournament.

India beat Kenya in the final of the Intercontinental Cup at the Mumbai Football Arena on Sunday, as Sunil Chhetri bagged two more goals to take his tournament’s tally to eight.

Kenya were rather flat-footed and opted to operate on the wings, preferred to keep the ball rather than go direct which their opponents did. India operated on a ‘route one’ basis as they hoicked it long for their strikers to latch on to and slot it home.

Although an effective strategy against the second-string teams of their opponents, Stephen Constantine will have to devise a better plan to counter-act the superior technical and physical skills of their opponents Bahrain, Thailand and hosts UAE in the Asian Cup.

Over-reliance on Chhetri

Chhetri’s eight goals meant that India scored a total of 11, as Jeje Lalpekhlua, Pronay Halder and Udanta Singh scored the others. Take out Halder and Udanta’s goals, the fifth and third goals from a 5-0 thrashing of Chinese Taipei and only Jeje scored a goal of any note, the second in a rain-soaked group stage encounter.

As a measure of his importance to the team, the captain scored the opening goal in all these matches, breaking the deadlock every single time.

You have to imagine that at the Asian Cup, smarter, more resourceful, well-researched opponents will aim to stop Chhetri and dampen the heartbeat of this team. In their final Asian Cup qualifier against the Kyrgyz Republic, playing away without Chhetri, India struggled to mount any sort of attacking momentum and the scoreline of 2-1 rather flattered them.

In a Tri-Nation tournament match last year at Mumbai, India were only able to gain a 1-1 draw against St Kitts and Nevis. India’s captain serves as an all-action figure in attack, linking up forays forward, playing it to the wide men and dashing into the box to finish them off.

As a veteran forward of 50 caps now, a greater onus has to be placed on Jeje’s shoulders. The Mizo forward has this tendency to blow hot and cold, and did not do enough to impact the game in three of the four games that India played.

At UAE against three highly-skilled opponents, India cannot afford a Jeje or an Udanta to be lackadasical or be bereft of ideas. The attack cannot afford any passengers, as the captain will surely be under higher scrutiny than he was at Mumbai.

Solution to midfield conundrum edging closer

So, was this ideal preparation for the Asian Cup? No, not by a long shot. While it is true that neither the All India Football Federation nor the team can do anything about the squads that other countries send, the learnings that India can claim to take away from this tournament are very limited.

Stephen Constantine, after the game against New Zealand, admitted that his team were susceptible to aerial threats. The gaffer readily accepted that it’s a part of the game that they had to work hardest on, to avoid goals being conceded from set pieces.

The Englishman after more than a year of tinkering with Rowllin Borges, Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Mohammed Rafique in midfield, finally seems to have settled on a pairing of Pronay Halder (if he can remain fit) and Anirudh Thapa.

While Pronay brings the physicality, Thapa has the calmness and hopefully the game, to retain the ball better against opponents who may punish the midfield for sloppiness. The 21-year-old Chennaiyin FC player needs more game time at club level, but should have a greater say this season after his breakthrough in the last one.

The one possibility is that Constantine will revert to old ways and may opt for Lyngdoh, once the playmaker returns from injury. It will be interesting to see how the team line up in case the Shillong-based creator gets the nod in midfield ahead of one of Thapa and Halder.

With Dhanpal Ganesh waiting in the wings, the midfield remains a conundrum to the head coach but he could do worse than sticking to the duo which started three of India’s four matches in Andheri. It remains team India’s most problematic area and a solution seems to be the horizon, but the coach must be willing enough to shelve his old favourites and start fresh all over again.

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