There was a tinge of optimism in the Indian footballing community after a favourable draw at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. We were slotted in a group that did not have any top ranked continental team neither any pre-tournament title favourites (think Iran, Australia, South Korea, Japan etc).
What added to the feeling was that our preparation was reportedly good, drawing against higher ranked teams like China and Oman in friendlies before the big kick off.
We were on cloud nine after thumping Thailand 4-1 in our Pool A opener, the highlights of which were repeatedly telecasted on TVs to pump up the hype. A feeling was generated that we would surely qualify for the Round of 16 for the first time.
But after expectations reached dizzying heights came the inevitable fall and a golden opportunity was squandered. We went down to hosts United Arab Emirates after putting up a good fight, bowing out after conceding from a last-minute penalty against Bahrain, following which the head coach Stephen Constantine promptly put in his papers.
In the last match against Bahrain, quite a few things went wrong, tactics and game plan included, and we could barely mount attacks or create chances like we did in the previous two matches.
There were, however, some positives in our performance that come to my mind. We showed improvement in fitness and team work. We were agile for the entire 90 minutes of play and did not get overawed by superior teams. We showed good pace on counter-attacks.
In the 2011 edition of the tournament, we had gone down 2-5 to Bahrain, this time we lost only by a 0-1 margin, that too by a last minute goal. We kept the margin of defeat to a respectable limit (0-2) against the hosts, a match which we could well have won had we taken our chances. This is in stark contrast to the heavy defeats we had suffered against Australia (0-4) and South Korea (1-4) in Qatar 2011.
Creativity In Midfield Missing
However, there were perceptible areas of weakness. We did not use the ball well while in possession. Failing to keep possession, we ran out of ideas when pressurised by Bahrain. Misplaced passes in the midfield or while playing out the ball from defence meant we conceded possession cheaply.
What I feel we sorely lacked was a creative midfielder who could seize control of the game and unless we find an exceptional player in that position we will not be able to make a mark.
Possessional football is not foreign to us. Apart from East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, Dempo’s credo has been possessional football from the time of Joseph Ratnam in the 1970s. Salgaocar too have played in a similar fashion under the late Thulukhanam Shanmugham.
It’s debatable whether excessive possession is effective or counter-productive but the ability to keep possession undoubtedly helps to some degree. For that you need players of reasonable technical ability like Samaresh Choudhury (Pintu) and Krishanu Dey. We sadly do not have them in great numbers now.
What I was also perturbed about was the concept of “rotating captains” that was implemented in the UAE and also in some games preceding the tournament. A change of captain is in order only if the present or established captain is not in form or not in the first XI. It is not a new concept in Indian football though. It was a practice that was tried out during my playing days in 1983/84 when the legendary Ciric Milovan (at that time he was rated among the top ten coaches in the world) had taken over and we had quite a few senior and well established players in the squad.
But in the present case, Sunil Chhetri is head and shoulders above his teammates and has been in good form for years. So I don’t think rotating captains was a good idea.
Short tenure an issue for my friend Derrick
After the Asian Cup, our next assignment is the AFC U-23 Championship, also the qualifiers for 2020 Tokyo Olympics, from March 22. The probables have been announced and Derrick Pereira has been named as the coach. We go back a long way. We played together for the national team in 1984, my final year in India colours.
He then played under me at Salgaocar in 1997. A solid central defender, Derrick possessed a good reading of the game from the very beginning.
Derrick was one of the few Pro and A licence coaches who deliverd good results with young and talented players especially when he was at Vasco SC. He then joined Mahindra United and guided them to the National Football League (NFL) and Federation Cup double in 2005, the two premium trophies in Indian football in those days. Till recently, he was in charge of the youth development wing of FC Goa.
He has been appointed for a limited period, which is an issue. He is capable of delivering but it is difficult to produce results straight away. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) must hand him a contract of at least two years.
He will be assisted by S. Venkatesh, who came into the limelight with Salgaocar in the 1998/99 season. He has been within the national set-up for the last few years, which will be helpful. It was Venkatesh who spotted Ashique Kuruniyan and Anirudh Thapa, both of whom are in the U-23 probables squad and are good prospects for the future.
Many players in the senior and U-23 squads have graduated from age group teams. Quite a few among the U-23 probables squad played for India in the 2017 U-17 World Cup. Their transition to India’s U-23 team in a short span of time might determine their future. Their development will be followed with keen interest.
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