Lessons from UAE loss: What must India do against Bahrain?
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu smiles sheepishly when reminded of a promise he had made to Sunil Chhetri when the two were doing a short live session on social media from UAE on New Year's Eve. "I wish I could give him the clean sheets I promised. He has already scored two goals. If he scores two more in the next, that would be good," he jokes, when asked if Chhetri had made any promises in return.
Chhetri could have had two against UAE on Thursday night; in fact, he had three presentable chances. A header smacked straight at the keeper from six yards out, a shot from a tight angle that rolled just wide and a free kick from just outside the box that didn't quite dip fast enough.
Could've, should've, would've...but didn't...
Now, they walk into the Bahrain match knowing that they must avoid a loss, at the least, to ensure progress into the round of 16. In terms of their playing style, Bahrain aren't much different from UAE, and hence evaluating India's performance on Thursday night could give a fair idea for what needs sharpening come Monday.
The starting XI
Coach Stephen Constantine got his team selection right against UAE. Ashique Kuruniyan might be raw but his pace, unpredictability and positioning as striker caused problems in both of India's opening games.
Anirudh Thapa was India's best player against UAE, especially after a slightly indifferent first half against Thailand. His deliveries from the wings or set pieces have also been good. Pranoy Halder's discipline in the middle has allowed Thapa to roam forward and cause trouble further up in midfield.
The defence was perhaps India's weakest link in the match against Thailand, and it was a couple of defensive errors that allowed UAE to score their goals on Thursday as well. They were the only shots the hosts managed on target through the 90 minutes, which also suggests the defence performed their job fairly competently on the whole. It is difficult to see Constantine change anything for the Bahrain game.
Composure on the ball
India have been guilty of rushing passes. Nobody has summed up that Jekyll-and-Hyde character more than Halder, who has pulled off some terrific interceptions, thrown himself about on the pitch, but often given the ball away softly and allowed himself to be stretched out of position in his eagerness to take the game to the opposition. It is an invariable fallout of having a young team at the tournament, and the occasion probably getting to them a bit (only Chhetri and Sandhu have ever been to the Asian Cup before this, and only the former has the experience of minutes played in the competition).
A little more composure on the ball, especially while playing out through midfield, could settle a lot of nerves early on against Bahrain.
In the two matches played thus far, the only substitute to make an impact has been Jeje Lalpekhlua, though it was much easier for him to do so when India were 3-1 up against Thailand. Against the UAE, Constantine felt that Jeje would have been able to hold the ball up better than Ashique, who dropped wide at the start of the second half. It made India slow and they weren't able to create as many chances as they did in the first 45.
Udanta Singh and Thapa, in the words of Constantine, had "run themselves into the ground" and were replaced by Jackichand Singh and Rowllin Borges, but neither player was able to make enough of an impact on the game. As like-for-like substitutions, though, it did feel like the quality of play had taken a hit after the departure of Singh and Thapa.
If India fall behind Bahrain early, do they have the quality on the bench that can make a difference? An answer to that might be key to India's progress.
Finishing, and defensive consistency
Forget scenarios, though. The more you score, the better your chance of winning. So in the end, it could all be about how India take the chances, and half-chances that they seem capable of creating. Putting away the kind of chances they created against the UAE would make the task of a historic qualification pretty straightforward.
At the other end, they will need to iron out the kind of complacent defending that led to the UAE's first goal. Address balls being played in behind, following the run of attackers. They will have to keep tabs against Mohamed Saad Al-Romaihi, the Bahrain centre-forward who harried UAE defenders with both his strength and skills on the opening night and scored the tournament's first goal.
Keep him quiet, and Sandhu might just be able to keep a third of his promise to Chhetri intact, and that could well be good enough, even for second place in the group.