At the end of a stunning 4-1 result, 11 men in white stood there in the middle of the pitch, grinning from ear to ear. Why wouldn’t they? They had recorded India’s first victory at the Asian Cup for 55 years.
They however, had not been as lambasted or harrowed as the bespectacled 56-year-old on the touchline. Stephen Constantine, the Englishman had received flak on social media, questions over his choice of squad, over his choice of captaincy, over his choice of the playing style.
Despite a 13-match, two year-long unbeaten run, Constantine’s detractors have never stopped coming at him in his second stint in charge of the national team. On Sunday, he and his team delivered India’s biggest Asian Cup victory over.
Kuruniyan: A bold call
Going into the match, India’s approach would make or break their hopes of progression. This was the match, Thailand was the opponent that they had to target in order to harbour any hopes of making it out of the group stage.
Constantine’s biggest call was the introduction of 20-year-old Ashique Kuruniyan. The Pune City winger started off in an advanced forward position, playing very close to Sunil Chhetri. This was the biggest game of Kuruniyan’s fledgling Indian career thus far.
As it turned out, India needn’t have worried. Kuruniyan ran his socks off, linked well with Chhetri, and it was his run that gave India their penalty. Chhetri dispatched it with confidence, India suddenly had the lead against Thailand.
The Pune City man wasn’t the only one to step up, Udanta Singh’s low cross led to India and Chhetri scoring their second. The Bengaluru winger laid the ball off for Anirudh Thapa to bag the third and the clincher. Substitute Jeje Lalpekhlua hadn’t scored a goal all season and he put the icing on the cake with the fourth.
By now, it would be unfair to say that Chhetri stepped up. He did what he has done for the greater part of a decade, carry the team on his back. In 2008, he was scoring a hat-trick to take India to the Asian Cup. In 2019, he scored his third and fourth goals in the Asian Cup. To score two goals at the continental extravaganza, to score 67 at the international level for India, to do it at the age of 34, the country’s best player pushes his myth higher and higher. Self-belief is his currency, and the level of operation is still higher than what many have witnessed from those in blue. The numbers have put him in the pantheon of Indian greats; they ensure that he cannot be dislodged.
This was also a match between two contrasting styles. While Thailand preferred a patient passing build-up approach, India went more direct and showcased incisiveness while cutting the War Elephants apart.
It also came together for India at the right moment. The coach’s tactics to push and press Thailand’s lines breaking their forward charge worked a treat as Milovan Rajevac’s team got their only goal through a set-piece. The pressing, as opposed to many an occasion in 2018, was uniform and relentless.
There could have been the old fear of the collapse after the equaliser, but the team came out buzzing after the half-time break. The Blue Tigers were brave, and the approach paid dividends for India after they created enough chances to put them away.
Halicharan Narzary, playing deep on the left, made up five in defence, in order to allow the Chhetri collective to operate without a huge fear of being caught high up on the pitch. Thailand’s slow approach also didn’t invite caution; India kept their opponents largely at bay in the second half. As their opponents’ play became increasingly ragged, India seized their moments and were more clinical in exchange.
High progression hopes
This result, coupled with UAE’s 1-1 draw against Bahrain, opens up a possibility of India qualifying for the knock-out stage. The three points from the win put Constantine’s team in a strong position in the group.
The draw will also mean that UAE and Bahrain will come extra hard at India in order to clinch automatic progression. With four of the six third-placed teams qualifying for the Round of 16, India’s three-goal advantage will afford them a cushion should they go down.
India should not read too much into this match, something Chhetri stressed on after the game, although a first win in 33 years against Thailand will help their confidence. Coupled with a UAE team which looked patchy in their first game and under expectations of bagging all three points at home, defensive resilience could prove to be the order of the day.
Constantine also called for calm after the game, “We try to win every match that we play in. We don’t go into a match expecting to win 4-1 or 5-1. However, we are not trying to get carried away with the emotion.”
It’s also not often that India’s attack are lauded for scoring four goals, especially at this level. The defence, which conceded at least four goals in each match the last time around, let in only one in its first test. What comes next is now anybody’s guess, but India have generated interest in an international competition, a welcome feeling.