India’s 4-1 win against Thailand in their opening match of the AFC Asian Cup 2019 left many optimistic of their chances of getting 3 points in their second group game against hosts UAE.
Yet the 2-0 loss suffered by Sunil Chhetri and co. leaves the Blue Tigers with a bit of an uphill task to make it to the second round of the tournament.
Head coach Stephen Constantine said after the match that the players had done well to create chances but couldn’t convert them and that will remain the main focus going into the final group game against Bahrain.
Yet there were other pressing issues that were highlighted by the match, including one where the coach must question his own tactics.
Lack of Clinical Finishing
Perhaps the biggest takeaway of the match was just how many chances India squandered. Early in the match, winger Ashique Kuruniyan – so instrumental in the last match – did well to force a good save from the opposition goalkeeper.
But it only went downhill from there. Chhetri, so often India’s most reliable player in front of goal, missed two good chances in the first half itself.
The second half saw no improvement in the finishing; Udanta Singh could only find the post from a dangerous position and the same fate befell a Sandesh Jhingan header from a free-kick in injury time.
Jeje Lalpekhlua, who was brought on in the beginning of the second half, had one good chance which he sent over the bar.
UAE were pinned down at times due to the relentlessness of India’s game but took their chances when they came. Unsurprisingly, that turned out to be the difference maker.
With India 1-0 down at half-time, Constantine felt the need to ring in the changes and so brought on the aforementioned Jeje in place of midfielder Halicharan Narzary.
On paper, the move made sense: removing one midfielder for the extra attacking option would, in theory, give India a better chance to find goals.
But the move only served to remove the bite from India’s play. The intensity in the first half was thanks in no small part to the midfield three putting in the hard yards off the ball.
This in turn meant the forward line could press the opposition aggressively, something that all but stopped when Jeje came on.
The move could have perhaps worked better if executed later in the second half as the defence would have been more comfortable playing out long balls knowing there an extra forward runner was present.
Yet sacrificing the extra midfield option only served to make India’s build-up play slightly plodding, thus leaving the home team’s defence with less to do.
While India haven’t always played attractive football under Constantine, the London-born coach has made the side hard to beat.
A large part of that is dependent on solidity at the back, something that wasn’t always on offer in the match against UAE.
Anas Edathodika had a poor game in the heart of the defence but collectively the defensive showing left a lot to be desired.
Pritam Kotal was caught out of position on occasion – even coming dangerously close to scoring an own-goal – whereas fellow full-back Subhashish Bose also gave away possession a couple of times in dangerous areas.
Gurpreet also looked unsettled on occasion and almost conceded an embarrassing own-goal himself when a shot ricocheted off the post and onto his hands, luckily going out for a corner.
Luckily for the Blue Tigers, qualification for the second round remains in their hands and not dependent on external factors. A win in the final group game should be enough to see them through to the knockouts.
Given their superior goal difference over Thailand – who are currently level on points with India – they could also qualify if both teams draw their respective final group games.
India’s final group game takes place on Monday (14 January).