The Indian football team did just about enough in the 2022 Fifa World Cup and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup joint qualifiers. They finished third behind higher-ranked Qatar and Oman and above lower-ranked Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
A 1-1 draw against Afghanistan on Tuesday rubber-stamped India’s passage into the third round of Asian Cup qualification, the primary target before the campaign began. Job done.
But India’s performance throughout the qualifiers that saw them pick up just one victory in eight matches left a lot to be desired.
Lack of ambition
The Blue Tigers’ draw against Afghanistan probably summed up their campaign. There were bright spots, moments of good fortune, lapses in concentration and an overall tame approach to proceedings.
Coach Igor Stimac surprisingly went for a back four against Afghanistan having deployed a back three against Bangladesh and Qatar with a fair degree of success. It was perhaps a statement of intent from the Indian camp, they sought more than just a point from the game that was enough to seal third place in Group E.
But on the field, India were a rather subdued lot. Unwilling to take a lot of risks, Stimac’s men were a bit too concerned about keeping their defensive shape. Without any press high up the field, India allowed Afghanistan to push ahead easily in the build-up phase. It thus enabled them to keep hold of the ball better.
And for India, it meant that they were pegged back in their own half a bit too much for their liking. The Blue Tigers looked sharp and carried a threat on counter-attacks, but they didn’t show enough quality in the final third to disrupt Afghanistan’s organisation.
It was probably a pragmatic approach from Stimac given his team only needed a point from the game, but against a team ranked 44 placed below them in the Fifa rankings, more was expected from India who didn’t show a lot of ambition in the match.
The big positive for India from the match was their defensive solidity. Despite moving from a back three to a four-man defensive line, Stimac’s side closed down any gaps very efficiently and didn’t allow Afghanistan too many attempts on Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s goal.
A mistake from Rahul Bheke coupled with a stunning finish from Hossein Zamani meant India couldn’t keep a clean sheet that seemed secure for a large part of the game.
But India’s defensive record in the World Cup qualifiers was quite good. Conceding just seven goals, the Blue Tigers had the 16th best record in the campaign among 42 sides.
The problem though was at the other end where India managed to score just six goals. Only one of those strikes came against the top two sides.
On Tuesday, India enjoyed a huge slice of luck for their goal as the Afghanistan goalkeeper spilled a regulation catch from a cross into his own net. Before the goal, India barely had any chances to take the lead.
Overall, India were solid at the back but lacked a concrete plan in the attack. Even when they got into areas to hurt the opponents, the lack of decisive forwards meant they could never hurt the opponents. It had been the story of India’s World Cup qualifying campaign.
The Blue Tigers’ best games came in the first two matches against Oman and Qatar where they showed good organisation and an ambition to succeed. But failure to maintain their level for 90 minutes meant India lost out to Oman despite being the better team for large parts of the game.
The 0-0 draw away to Qatar was a phenomenal result, but it was more about rearguard action than attacking brilliance.
India never returned to that level of performance, though, as they needed last-gasp goals to avoid defeats against Bangladesh and Afghanistan. India found it hard to score goals against these defensively set up units. Even Oman adopted a more reserved approach against goal-shy India successfully.
Apart from lack of goalscoring ability, India missed a bit of killer instinct during the qualifiers. The Qatar draw aside, India’s players got bogged down by challenges thrown at them and didn’t show the attitude to overcome them.
“We had good games against Qatar away and Oman at home which were some of our best performances in recent years. So the feeling in the camp is that we have been hot and cold and that is something the group is looking to correct in the future,” Chhetri had said before the game. The Afghanistan tie would have done little to change his opinion.
Even though a third-place finish is par for course, a return of just seven points from eight matches was a bit disappointing. India were the joint-worst third-placed team in the World Cup qualifiers in terms of points.
Unlike earlier times, Stimac avoided wholesale changes to his line-ups in recent matches suggesting that he has found his best eleven and there’s a hope that India will slowly start to improve their performance levels in the next few games.
But this World Cup qualifying campaign had precious little signs of that. Failure to beat lesser teams would be even more concerning given that India would more likely face similar opponents in the Asian Cup qualifiers.
After a promising Asian Cup campaign in 2019 where India gave some top teams a run for their money, the World Cup qualifiers were supposed to usher in India’s next step in their development. But after eight games and a rather tame draw against Afghanistan, India seem to be back to square one.
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