Just minutes before kick-off, a section of Blue Pilgrims supporters unfurled a huge tifo at the Salt Lake Stadium on Tuesday showing their support for the Indian team. The large banner portrayed three fans celebrating in different colours – those of Mohammedan Sporting, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal – Kolkata’s most successful clubs.
After India’s gallant draw against Qatar last month, 61,486 home fans thronged the stadium in expectations of an even better result. Particularly, against an opponent that was ranked 83 spots below them. But in the end, all they got was a dissatisfying draw.
Bangladesh coach Jamie Day was grinning ear to ear as he embraced Igor Stimac at the touchline after the full-time whistle, heading home with their first point of the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign despite India defender Adil Khan’s late header which cancelled out Saad Uddin’s opener.
India’s mandatory post-match Viking clap had no spirit either and skipper Sunil Chhetri merely nodded his head in disappointment. With a chance of climbing into third spot in their group, the Blue Tigers put up a lackluster performance.
From the moment Bangladesh stepped on the pitch, they showed India they weren’t going to be pushovers. The signs were evident in the opening 20 seconds.
Sohel Rana pounced on a mistimed touch from Udanta Singh in India’s half and passed to Biplo Ahmed on the left. The winger whizzed past defender Rahul Bheke, who was caught ball watching and was clipped on his shins by the Indian right-back inside the box. Luckily for India, referee Mahsoud Tufaylieh did not point to the penalty spot.
Sturdy playing XI
The incident should have been an eye-opener for the hosts who had named an attack heavy line-up with Manvir Singh surprisingly leading the attack and Chhetri playing just behind him. Anas Edathodika slotted in for the injured Sandesh Jhinghan to partner Adil Khan at the heart of the defence.
With Rowllin Borges suspended, Anirudh Thapa dropped deep in midfield as full-backs Mandar Rao Dessai and Bheke stretched out to make good use of the wide spaces and combine with wingers Ashique Kuruniyan and Udanta Singh.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh stuck with the tried and tested eleven that featured in their game against Qatar. Their game plan for the evening was a simple one – sit back, don’t give much space to the opposition strikers and punish India on the counter if they pushed up too high.
With Bangladesh blocking the passing lanes through the middle, India needed to be patient and calm in their build-up play. They were even afforded the luxury of keeping the ball as the visitors sat back.
But as Bangladesh held firm, the long-ball approach looked like India’s only solution despite their forwards proving to be ineffective. Chhetri was isolated and the plan to deploy Manvir as a target man wasn’t bearing fruit. Wingers Kuruniyan and Udanta failed to latch onto long balls and when even they did, Riyadul Rafi and Mohamed Rahmat Mia were quick to deny them time and space.
Under Stimac, the Indian team has looked to play the ball out of from the back but on Tuesday, the playing patterns appeared too lax and predictable while transitioning to attack. This allowed Day’s men to anticipate and close down spaces well in time.
A wobbly defence and individual errors at the back only made India’s task tougher. Around the half-hour mark, Adil Khan nearly gifted a goal when he misplaced his pass to goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, letting Biplo Ahmed through on goal again before Edathodika made a vital interception.
The pressure got to India when Bheke conceded a foul around 30-35 yards out just minutes before the end of the first half. Bangladesh skipper Jamal Bhuyan floated the ball in from a set-piece, Sandhu misjudged the trajectory of the cross and allowed Uddin to sneak behind and head in the opening goal.
Improved second-half show
India returned with a renewed sense of urgency and showed more intent after half-time. The home side started to press high and manipulate the field with better off the ball movements. More bodies were pushed forward to attack but they failed to assert control in the midfield until Brandon Fernandes was introduced at the hour mark for Dessai.
Stimac further threw caution to the wind by bringing on Raynier Fernandes for Thapa and Lallianzuala Chhangte for Anas, with Kuruniyan and Udanta playing as wing-backs. The substitutions spurred India on. They pinged Bangladesh back in their own half, began moving the ball better and quicker, looked lively in the middle and threatened from the wings. But the visitors continued to keep their form and held fort as India were found lacking in the final third.
They were forced to try long rangers and despite registering more shots, they hardly tested Bangladesh keeper Ashraful Rana.
India’s best chances of scoring came through corners and Khan made the most of it in the end, timing his jump to perfection and heading Brandon’s delivery to the back of the net to seal his first international goal. Had it not been for a late goal saving the blushes, Bangladesh had nearly masterminded their game plan to perfection to pull off an upset.
“I am a bit disappointed that we conceded with two minutes to go but we worked hard and credit to India, they kept going. Our plan was to frustrate India, we did that. We counter-attacked really well. I’m just gutted for the boys that they couldn’t get the three points we deserved,” Day said after the game.
He added: “If you look at the game, India didn’t really cause us a threat. We defended well and had the best chances in the game. We have shown how far we have come in a short space of time.”
Stimac rued that India were responsible for their fate, with the draw leaving them in a precarious position in the race for the second spot in their group.
“The strategy was quick passing from the back, opening the gaps in the channels. We have players who can show up there, Chhetri and Samad, but we were slow at the back. First 45 [minutes] we were not in our speed, players were keeping the ball for too long at their feet, so the gaps were not opening,” said Stimac.
The team also missed Jhingan’s ball-playing abilities and the absence of a defensive midfielder like Borges, handy at breaking down attacks in the center of the park and shielding the defence, put too much responsibility on Thapa’s shoulders.
“I knew we were going to have problems at the back with discipline, Jhingan was missing. We need to improve more on our movements because they create space in the channels. To show up and receive the ball. We have the players who can create [chances]. Thapa was playing brilliantly for 50 minutes but then the legs became heavy and we needed to make changes,” Stimac added.
Two tough away assignments are next for India – Afghanistan (November 14) and Oman (November 19) – both must-win games.
With Qatar securing a 2-1 home win over Oman on Tuesday, the second spot in group E is up for grabs and if India harbour any hopes of securing that, they will surely know that this long-ball approach isn’t going to help them get far.