Indian football team lost an international friendly to the United Arab Emirates. For a team ranked forty places below their opponents in the Fifa rankings, the outcome was on expected lines.
But the Blue Tigers lost the game 0-6. The gulf between the two teams on the night was bigger than what it should have been.
UAE on their part were clinical and ruthless during the game and made India pay for every mistake they made. The problem for India though was that the magnitude of their errors was so big that it didn’t take a lot for UAE to exploit it.
Bad result, worse performance
Ahead of the game, coach Igor Stimac was full of warnings for his players who had earned plaudits for holding higher-ranked Oman to a 1-1 draw despite not playing too well. The Croatian coach though was wary.
“Our players will need to understand that this is not the ISL where there is a lot of space and time to control the ball in the middle. If you behave the way you do in ISL in international matches, you will be badly hurt,” Stimac had said before the game.
The performance against UAE showed that the players didn’t pay heed to the coach’s words and fell to a level that was well below even their ISL standards.
The Indian players, especially the centre-backs, failed to do even the very basics right. There were huge gaps between the defenders that allowed UAE forwards to make runs through the Indian defence. The lack of pressure on the ball in midfield meant the UAE midfielders could pick out those runs at will.
But that wasn’t all. Even when India were building up, there was a severe lack of precision in their passing that led to losing the ball in their own half where UAE were well stationed to transition and exploit the disorganised Indian defence.
By the end of the game, the Indian rearguard also dropped the intensity and effort. The sixth goal that India conceded where Ashqiue Kuruniyan pulled out of a header to allow the UAE midfielder to win the ball before getting bullied physically in an attempt to stop him running at the heart of the defence, summed up India’s performance.
In addition, the old problems of failing to transition from defence to attack continued as the Blue Tigers found little success in getting the ball to its forwards. On most occasions, an Indian counter-attack didn’t last more than two passes as UAE, who sat in a mid-block, won the ball back simply by standing their ground.
Too much experimentation?
The palpable lack of organisation and understanding among the players can be put down to the eight changes that coach Stimac made from the last game in a bid to give all members of his squad a chance to play, but the meek surrender and a lack of fight compounded the team’s weaknesses.
The purpose of friendly games is to experiment and to test yourself against the opponents and to be fair to Stimac, he did that. But did he do a bit too much of it?
The Croatian gets the benefit of the doubt in this case as India were returning to action after more than 15 months and he needed to start pretty much from scratch and pick players based on recent form rather than past achievements.
He would have learnt about the players he picked in these two matches but the question is would it be fair to judge them based on few minutes in games where they had little experience of playing with the other members of the team? Could he have at least identified a spine for his team instead of randomly chopping and changing?
Stephen Constantine had identified a core group of players during his time as coach of the Indian football team. He then stuck with them through thick and thin and in the end, they delivered the results.
Constantine’s India had given UAE a real run for their money during their 2-0 defeat in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. Having struck the woodwork thrice in the game and missed gilt-edged chances, the Blue Tigers were quite unlucky not to draw the game, if not win it.
With AFC Asian Cup qualification on the line, Stimac too would now need to quickly zero in on a set of players he trusts and devise a system that best suits them.
Stimac’s rope cut short?
After 12 games under his tenure, India just have one victory and that would need to change if the Croatian is to avoid some tough questions on his credentials. It will only come with consistency in performance levels, something that has been lacking under Stimac.
To add to his challenges, India’s impressive performance in their loss to UAE in the Asian Cup two years ago now contrasts the insipid performance in the 6-0 thrashing. It suggests that India have regressed in the last two years despite being in a position of strength and delivering one of its best performances in recent times at the AFC Asian Cup.
Under Stimac, India have certainly decided to go in a different direction. His attempt of playing an attractive brand of football, blooding in youngsters and handing in a record number of debuts is appreciated. But he would need to complement it with a consistent rise in the level of performances and subsequently, improvement in results, sooner rather than later.
The jury is not yet out on the Croatian due to the Covid-19 interruption to his tenure, and even a 6-0 friendly defeat may not straightaway change that. But after the humbling loss, the need for Stimac to start finding answers to problems facing the Indian football team is at an all-time high.