Sunil Chhetri goals in an India win. It’s happened before. It is what almost always happens. For fans of Indian football, it’s a thing to be taken for granted. Through the lowest of lows and a few remarkable highs, it’s perhaps been the only constant.
So when Chhetri netted a brace against Bangladesh in the Fifa World Cup (and Asian Cup) qualifiers match on Monday to end a personal run of four games without a goal to snap India’s eleven-match winless streak, it felt extra special.
It was the longest run of games that the Indian captain had gone without scoring in for the national team. It was also the team’s longest winless run in a long time. It wasn’t since that 4-1 win over Thailand in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup that India had won a game in which Chhetri had scored.
The Chhetri goals
For large parts during the game on Monday, it seemed that all the unwanted streaks would continue. As India were being held to a draw for the second time in the World Cup qualifiers by a team ranked 79 places below them in the Fifa rankings, Chhetri was guilty of missing big chances. Both headers, both fairly straightforward by his standards.
But just when it seemed that form had finally got the better of India’s record goalscorer, he sprung to life.
Running unattended at the far post, he received a cross from Ashique Kuruniyan; it was high, looping and a bit too deep. Not ideal for any striker but Chhetri made it look easy. Twisting his head slightly behind he managed to meet the ball mid-air and squeeze in the header into the far side of the goal by the narrowest of angles. A few minutes later, he received another cross inside the box; this time from the other flank, this time at his feet. Desperate Bangladesh bodies were flying in to make it hard for him but he put the ball in the top corner as if they weren’t there.
On a pitch where finishing was a skillset scant in supply and in a game full of misplaced passes, heavy touches, and general lethargic attacking play, Chhetri showed his class like he always does.
Tactically sound but sloppy India
The match for India though hadn’t gone to plan until their captain stepped in late. They were dominant, held plenty of ball possession but couldn’t create enough goalscoring opportunities to rattle Bangladesh. A story similar to the previous match in Kolkata between the two teams, except that India looked much assured at the back on Monday than what they did two years ago.
A part of that defensive security was coach Igor Stimac’s decision to field a back three. The additional number in defence meant India always had a numerical advantage while dealing with Bangladesh’s counter-attacks.
It did come at the cost of bodies in the attacking third, but the Croatian had coached his team well to ensure that the team’s attacking endeavours were not weakened by the formation change.
India in the first half overloaded the left-hand side and tried to find Udanta Singh on the right who would hug the touchline to stretch the play. As they started enjoying more and more of the ball, they set up in a 3-3-4 formation while in possession with both Bipin Singh and Udanta providing width. The plan was smart but the execution far from it.
The Indian players often struggled to string multiple passes together and despite their tactical superiority, they couldn’t make it count. Their greatest threat continued to come from set-pieces.
In the second half, Stimac replaced Bipin (who had a poor half) with Ashqiue Kuriniyan and Udanta with Mohammad Yasir. It provided an additional attacking body in central midfield and allowed Suresh Wangjam to use his pace on the flanks.
Eventually, it was Ashique’s incredible crossing ability that created the chance for Chhetri’s opener. For Stimac, it was a good night as his game-plan was near perfect and his substitutions eventually just about made it work.
But going into the game against Afghanistan, a team superior to Bangladesh, the lack of precision in passing, absence of sustained intensity and the eventual dearth of chances from open play will worry the Croatian coach.
It has been a theme for India in matches especially against the lower-ranked sides. All of India’s goals in the World Cup qualifiers prior to Monday had come from dead-ball situations. The Blue Tigers had looked most dangerous on set-pieces and crosses throughout the campaign. Despite the Croatian’s insistence on playing a short-passing game and opting for players who would help him achieve that goal, India seem a long way off from being able to implement that style of play successfully.
Who after Chhetri?
As Indian football fans celebrate Chhetri’s goals and his impeccable service to the team, one can’t run away from the fact that he is 36. Even though retirement isn’t on his mind now, it’s a reality that is inevitable in the near future.
Stimac has packed his squad with a number of talented attackers. He used a few against Bangladesh in an attempt to break the deadlock but none answered his call. Manvir Singh, Liston Colaco, Bipin Singh and even Ishan Pandita in some previous matches have struggled to create any kind of significant impact.
India’s closest attempt at finding a successor to Chhetri was Jeje Lalpekhlua and it now seems that his international career may be over even before Chhetri hangs up his boot. Since then, many have come and gone and none have done enough to take the mantle forward.
“There were a lot of people talking about Chhetri’s retirement. But look at him play. Not just on the pitch in games, he is our best player even in training every day. Thank God he isn’t retiring,” said Stimac after the game. The Bengaluru FC talisman has scored 54% of the team’s goals under the Croatian.
India can wrap its record goalscorer in cottonwool as much as it can, but not having a replacement for him is not sustainable.
There are questions facing Indian football that it doesn’t quite have answers for yet but for now, normal service resumed for the team and Chhetri against Bangladesh in a match they simply had to win.
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