The Indian football team went into the SAFF Cup final as overwhelming favourites to retain the title, despite fielding an U-23 side that didn’t always function as a cohesive unit.
Yet it was Maldives who were celebrating at the end of the 90 minutes on Saturday as they pulled off an upset in the final to clinch only their second-ever SAFF Cup.
For Maldives the result was a feel-good one. After all they only progressed to the semi-finals by virtue of a coin toss and yet they put in two convincing performances thereafter, proving their worth despite the manner in which they made it to the last-four.
For India coach Stephen Constantine – who told his young charges to use this tournament to prove that they deserve to be on the flight to UAE for the AFC Asian Cup in January – the loss served to provide more questions than answers as far as tactics are concerned.
However, one can easily make the point that India’s poor preparation set them up to fail in a tournament they should have won.
The final saw Maldives use a simple – if perpetually unwatchable – approach. Realising that the Indian wingers would look to pepper the box with crosses due to starting with a two-striker formation, Maldives chose to sit deep inside their own box.
The tactic worked wonders as the Indian players dominated possession for large parts of the game yet failed to create many clear-cut chances. It didn’t help that when they did get into good positions, they couldn’t score.
Manvir Singh, who ended the tournament as the top goal-scorer, missed two good chances inside the box. Both missed opportunities could have easily turned the tie on its head.
Unlike what he would have hoped for, the in-form forward spent large portions of the game without getting the required service from the players out-wide as the crossing was erratic, with quite a few balls failing to clear the first man. Other times the crosses were over-hit or simply booted forward by a resolute Maldives back-line.
Maldives were also deadly on the counter-attack, breaking with speed and precision when they could. Both their goals came from counter-attacking moves and while they had fewer clear cut attacking moves than India, they were far more clinical.
Australia Tour Fiasco
Whether or not the “exposure tours” organised by the AIFF will have any effect on improving India’s youth teams is something that is still open for debate. What isn’t is the fact that the tour organised prior to the Asia Cup was poorly thought out and largely served to waste taxpayer money since these tours are funded by the Sports Authority of India (SAI).
The squad flew out to Australia and spent a week in Sydney despite the fact that not a single game was organised for them. Eventually it was announced that they will play Sydney FC, Rydalmere Lions FC and APIA Leichhardt Tigers FC.
The AIFF undoubtedly deserves some credit for cobbling together three matches for a tour that was reportedly pushed for by Constantine.
However, it’s also worth noting that Rydalmere Lions FC and APIA Leichhardt Tigers FC both play in semi-professional leagues based in New South Wales, meaning the level of competition the U-23s faced wasn’t up to the mark.
The only top side they faced was Sydney FC and they succumbed to a 3-0 loss in that match against a team that is not only a fully professional club, but also the reigning champions in the A-League – Australia’s top-flight football league.
The topsy-turvy nature of the tour left India under-prepared rather than well-prepared and it showed throughout the tournament before they were ultimately outplayed in the final by Maldives, more than 50 ranks below.