Anirudh Thapa: We gave our best, but it didn't happen for us
The decision by coach Stephen Constantine to replace central midfielder Anirudh Thapa with Rowllin Borges could have signalled the fundamental intention of the Indian team in their crucial final Asian Cup group A qualifier - to prefer a draw over going for the kill. Thapa was introduced only in the 79th minute, by which time India had been sucked into deep defending by a rampaging Bahrain. Being knocked out of the tournament by a stoppage-time penalty after putting in their best Asian Cup performance in decades, India were left with little consolation.
Constantine, who subsequently announced his resignation from his post as India coach, would also say that the decision to start with Borges was dictated by a back injury sustained by Thapa in the match against UAE. "Borges is one of the best passers of the ball in the game in India, when he gets on the ball he can create things, he can get the ball out to Udanta [Singh], he can get the ball out to Holi [Halicharan Narzary]. Obviously that didn't go as planned..."
Thapa's back injury, he said, was not "major." "It wasn't the main reason we left him out, it was slightly because he was tired, he had a back problem and we thought Borges (was) fresh legs..."
The Indian team trudged disconsolate out of the venue, and Thapa who had announced his arrival to the event, with a nerveless goal against Thailand said, "What we needed was to draw or win, and Thailand had to lose, but it all went opposite, so obviously disappointed." That a central midfielder with a sore back had to step in for winger Narzary, who himself played for most part after twisting his ankle early in the first half, was a sign of how things went haywire for India on the night.
Needing to essentially just keep their heads about themselves to make the round-of-16, a stage that had looked well in sight after a thumping 4-1 win against Thailand, the match began in the worst possible fashion with centre-back Anas Edathodika pulling a hamstring inside the first three minutes of play.
"We had to press them and we had to maintain our shape -- that was our main objective," Thapa said of the game plan going into the match. "To press in the middle, because they usually play from the wings. We had to do that, that was the main concern."
As India's influence in midfield waned and they started defending deeper, it meant Bahrain could send more players forward. Fittingly, it was their centre-back Hamed Mahmood who was looking to get on to the ball when he was clipped by Pronay Halder inside the Indian penalty box, leading to the spot kick that effectively ended the Asian Cup for India and Thapa.
"Playing with these senior players, I'm taking something good with me. It's always a disappointment for the whole nation that we didn't qualify from this (group stages) because we had a good opportunity," said Thapa. "But it's all in the luck. We gave our best, but it didn't happen for us."