The Intercontinental Cup had little success in store for the Indian football team that was out of the contention for the final even before the ball was kicked in their last group game against Syria.
The 2-4 and 2-5 defeats to Tajikistan and DPR Korea respectively had left India’s chances of making it to the final hanging by a thread. Eventually, Korea’s 1-0 success over Tajikistan meant the slim hopes were extinguished.
Thus, purely from the tournament perspective, India faced Syria with nothing to play for, but in the broader context, coach Igor Stimac had plenty of wrongs to right.
India’s game against Syria was also, in all likelihood, the last game the Croatian would get before India begin the World Cup qualifiers on September 3.
India had shipped nine goals in two matches heading into the game against Syria. Constant chopping and changing didn’t allow any kind of understanding to develop within the members of the backline. Some of those changes were forced due to injury, while others were made with an aim to test all available players.
Stimac was expected to name his strongest possible XI against Syria after claiming he knew which players he could count on in the future. However, injury to Sandesh Jhingan and Adil Khan’s suspension meant, the Croatian was forced to field a makeshift defence.
Pritam Kotal retained his place in the right-back role, but Rahul Bheke was paired with young Narendar Gahlot in central defence. At left back, Mandar Rao Desai was chosen ahead of Jerry Lalrinzuala and Subhasish Bose.
The 18-year-old Gahlot had a tough debut against Tajikistan when India conceded four goals. Similarly, Bheke too had an uncomfortable outing in his preferred right-back role in that game.
Both Gahlot and Bheke are Stimac’s selections to the national team and neither had put in a performance of note in the chances afforded to them. Pairing up in central defence, the duo had their task cut out.
There were a few early glitches in the performance when the defence let in Syrian forward Mohammad Al Marmour have a free run at goal in the 4th minute before Gahlot’s error in judging an aerial ball set visiting captain Firas Alkhatib through on Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s goal just before the half-hour mark. Fortunately for India, the visitors didn’t capitalise on those chances in the first half.
In the second half though, Bheke and Gahlot tightened things up and barely gave the Syrians a sniff. Bheke was a massive presence in the air winning most of the aerial duels. Gahlot, on the other hand, dealt with any danger with authority and showed plenty of composure on the ball while passing it forward.
The youngster also bagged the all-important goal that gave India the lead. He did well to escape his marker, put in a big leap and expertly direct the ball past the goalkeeper.
The duo repaid the faith shown on them by coach Stimac who stuck with the two players despite underwhelming performance in the previous matches.
“If I as a coach don’t take the risk and responsibility to give the players the chance to play, nobody will. I have a strong belief; I have seen how much they can do on the training ground. There will be ups and downs but that is the only way to help the players grow,” Stimac said after the game.
Gahlot and Bheke may not be the first-choice centre-backs when the World Cup qualifiers come around, but their performance against Syria was enough to assure Stimac that he can fall back on the two defenders if the need arises.
The Croatian has tried several midfield combinations in the Intercontinental Cup, but he’s stuck with 18-year-old Amarjit Singh in all three matches. The youngster had some indifferent performances initially, but against Syria, he showed great tactical discipline.
Slotted alongside Anirudh Thapa, the midfield combination was considered lightweight defensively due to their relatively smaller physiques and naturally attacking instincts. However, both midfielders provided the defence with the necessary cover that was missing in previous games.
For most parts of the match, Syria struggled to open up the compact defensive unit and only threatened when Indian defenders made any individual mistake.
Thus, Amarjit and Thapa banished all insecurities about their combination with an assured performance in the middle of the park.
Stimac also named Sahal Abdul in the line-up against Syria after his impactful substitute appearance against DPR Korea. With Syria pressing and dominating possession in the Indian half, Sahal got few opportunities to weave his magic but when he got the ball at his feet, the Kerala Blasters man looked the brightest creative force. He too put in a shift and wasn’t a liability defensively.
In the wide areas, Udanta was a constant attacking threat and created most of India’s chances in the first half. His pace kept the Syrians on the toes for the entire ninety minutes.
Lalianzuala Chhangte had a relatively quiet game in the attacking third, but the youngster brought his work-rate to the table. He helped out his left-back on several occasions and ensured India weren’t punished more often on their weaker side.
Stimac may throw a defensive-minded and an experienced player like Pronay Halder in the mix once he’s fit, but the Croatian wouldn’t want to keep too many of his performers away from the pitch come the World Cup qualifiers.
Stimac’s chosen ones had shown plenty of glimpses of their quality during the Intercontinental Cup so far, but against Syria they stood up and put in a performance for the full ninety minutes. The signs are heartening for a coach, especially with the all-important World Cup qualifiers on the horizon.