The last time Bangladesh had held the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Cup, India had beaten Maldives 3-1 on penalties.
The Bangabandhu Stadium featured a different look on Saturday evening, with the Indian team soundly beaten. Don’t let the scoreline of 2-1 fool you. India looked the less hungrier, the more defensive-prone of both sides.
Stephen Constantine was terse at half-time, terming the team ‘a young side’ which he was proud of, having reached the final. In reality, they had coasted through the tournament, faltering at the final hurdle.
A key difference was that they had gone behind for the first time, and possibly had not mentally prepared themselves for a fight from a team they had defeated 2-0 in the group stages.
Maldives had reached the semi-finals after a coin toss against Sri Lanka, but they fully deserved their victory. A 3-0 win over Nepal should have been warning enough for India, but on the night, the Blue Tigers mustered little in attack.
Manvir Singh’s three goals should have been enough for Constantine to keep it simple and direct all his resources towards providing the forward with more service. It panned out very differently, the FC Goa forward was starved of clear chances and forced to rely on half opportunities.
Ashique Kuruniyan’s two assists against Pakistan and a standard of pace that was higher than the rest of the team could have also made him another candidate to play through. It was Nikhil Poojary on the right, poor in his stint in the semi-final that the majority of the attacking impetus fell on.
As it turned out, the man tasked with delivering the cross was below par all night, save for his assist at the end. In hindsight, it could be said that Lallinzuala Chhangte’s absence through a mindless red in the semifinal cost India a possible victory but the mistakes were elementary and India duly paid for them.
The defence makes mistakes
The first Maldives goal was a brain-fade moment for the entire defence, Subashish Bose left exposed by his centre-backs. A lack of communication meant that Ibrahim Hussain was through on goal and Vishal Kaith, still raw at this juncture of his career, chipped easily.
Kaith, having conceded just one in his three matches, would go on to concede another one. The mistake came from Sarthak Golui this time. It might have been termed ‘schoolboy’ by many a commentator but to the naked eye, it was the lack of complete vigilance on the part of the defender.
The Pune City defender had left Ali Fasir offside, and was nonchalantly strolling back with an almost certain conviction that the referee would blow his whistle. Fasir stuck to his task, rolling it past an on-rushing Kaith, further compounding Constantine and India’s woes.
The introduction of Germanpreet Singh had left India with a three-man defence but there was no added protection for the backline and Maldives went central, went direct and reaped the rewards.
Anirudh Thapa, India’s most creative player had looked devoid of ideas but was possibly the most capable player to pick the lock. Instead, he was also hooked for Hitesh Sharma with Sumeet Passi introduced for Farukh Choudhary who had a forgettable tournament.
Excesses spent on preparation
Observers will point to team selection and state that the competition should have been taken seriously, with more of the regular squad selected. Perhaps, but this was a match that most versions of an Indian team should have been expected to win.
Constantine spoke about most of the under-23’s not receiving regular game-time in the Indian Super League, symptomatic of a larger problem but a 45-day camp, yes 45 days, for the SAFF Cup, was supposed to solve all of these questions.
Neither can the defeat be termed an one-off, given that the team was supposed to prepare for a high-intensity final against any of the other teams hungrier to win this competition. A hap-hazard tour of Australia followed for ‘exposure’ presumably.
A competition without Afghanistan, who moved to the Central Asian Football Association, witnessed excesses spent on preparation, despite many in the set-up being a part of the full squad during the Intercontinental Cup. Excesses, irrespective of the final result.
Approaching the all-important Asian Cup, it would be counter-productive to make hasty changes. Constantine would do well to reflect his team’s shortcomings from a competition, being the only side in Bangladesh to have made it to the continent’s show-piece to be held in UAE four months on.