When match-day 3 began for the Indian football team in Sharjah, their future was in their own hands. Sort of at least, as a positive result was needed to achieve progress to the Round of 16. Rarely, in recent years has those two things combined for Indian football and at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup – history repeated itself.
Lots of if’s and should have’s will tail the Indian team, just ask Pronay Halder who wore the captain’s armband and put in an almost fitting performance, as they crashed out after a 1-0 defeat to Bahrain in their final Group A game.
India were on the verge of the knock-outs as the scoreline remained 0-0 till the 90th minute when Halder brought down a Bahrain attacker for the referee to point to the dreaded spot. Jamal Rashed stepped up and coolly scored.
Eight years ago on the same day, the opponents were the same and so was the result, but India were blown away 5-2. This year though, rather refreshingly, India came into the game with a belief that they could take the game to their opponents, mighty as they maybe.
The campaign has seen plenty of positives for the Blue Tigers, and so did the contest in Sharjah on Monday, but the tie against Bahrain also laid bare various chinks in the armour that need to instant attention.
The defeat also marks the end of Stephen Constantine’s second stint in charge of the Indian team and a chance to go back to the drawing board to plug the loopholes.
Jhingan Stands Tall
Sandesh Jhingan has always had his critics and his fair share of criticism during his career and even though one outstanding performance will not take care of that, he was the sole reason why India came away without an absolute thrashing.
Distinctive with his pony tail and beard, he was everywhere the Bahrain attackers did not want him to be. From sliding in to cut off a low cross, to a sliding tackle that needed to be perfect, to multiple blocks and even laying the off-side trap well.
Jhingan did not have the ideal start to the game as he lost his centre-back partner in Anas Edathodika after his knee gave way.
Jhingan, to great credit, kept his calm and guided the young Salam Ranjan Singh into the game to keep the heart of India’s defence solid.
Jhingan possibly had one of his best days in India colours and definitely did not deserve to end up defeated.
As soon as the line-ups were in and it was discovered that Anirudh Thapa had been replaced by Rowlin Borges, the eyebrows were being raised. Up until now, India had rather heart-warmingly challenged their opponents but the change to a defensive approach without any injuries left everyone stunned, especially given the recent performances against Thailand and UAE.
Borges was never going to have the same impact that the physically smaller Thapa would and the lack of creativity hurt India. Sunil Chhetri, Ashique Kuruniyan and Udanta Singh fed off scraps as Bahrain made began to camp out in the Indian half of the field.
India did not possess the players who could pass their way through the opposition and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s long balls to Chhetri and Jeje and Ashique or Udanta was eventually asking too much off them.
Despite the talk of playing to win, Constantine had set up India to defend and eke out a draw to help create history.
History, as it has shown on multiple occasions, reiterated that the plan was not good enough and it culminated in a tired tackle late on from the captain. Pronay Halder had like the rest had run his heart and socks out but against the rampant Bahraini attack it would have admittedly been difficult to hold out for very much longer.
The goal and the result was coming as India could not keep up with the intensity they had invited on themselves.
If anything positive came out from the tie against Bahrain was the desire to just not give up. Technically outplayed by more skillful players, the Indians did not let go and put their bodies on the line.
Everyone was called in to perform a defensive shift and fall back they did. Constantine’s India, for the major chunk stuck to their plans and fought tooth and nail like a team.
For a team that lacked in terms of quality on most days, they showed a stomach for a fight and the willingness to that extra yard.
The loss against Bahrain will always raise the question against the need for sudden extra caution, but it will also always be remembered for the effort that went in despite the injuries and shortcomings.
Unfortunately, effort alone does not win you football matches as the gulf in class was evident.