Intercontinental Cup win paints over defensive cracks
India picked up the Intercontinental Cup crown with a comprehensive 2-0 victory over Kenya in Mumbai on Sunday, winning three of their four matches over a 10-day period. While the team eventually prevailed in the tournament, the head coach Stephen Constantine still has a lot to think about, as India build towards the AFC Asian Cup in January 2019.
All eyes on Chhetri going forward
On his way to the Intercontinental Cup title, captain Sunil Chhetri reached the 100 full internationals mark, and celebrated the occasion with some peerless football right through the tournament. He scored in every game, netting eight goals, including his third hat-trick in international football. There were penalties won and converted, a clever chip to beat Kenya the first time, a calculated but lucky bit of pressing that took a clearance from New Zealand's goalkeeper into his own net, and a rare finish with his left foot in the final.
The Indian team's dependence on Chhetri in attack was palpable, though. Centre-forward Jeje Lalpekhlua had a pretty quiet tournament, and Balwant Singh didn't make much of an impact either. Holicharan Narzary and Udanta Singh both were not consistent enough on the flanks, and that meant far too much of India's attacks came right through the centre.
An open midfield
With Rowllin Borges having a poor tournament, there was an air of expectation about two possible contenders in central midfield. Pronay Halder and Anirudh Thapa both met those with flying colours. Halder was a calming presence when India's opponents -- each of Chinese Taipei, Kenya and New Zealand had some players with great bursts of acceleration -- threatened to take the game to the home side.
Thapa provided both work rate as well as some imagination in moving forward. The Chennaiyin FC midfielder drew himself back to defend often, but when getting the ball, helped set up several of India's best moments in attack. His assist in the final with a smart free-kick cut back to Chhetri opened India's scoring in just the eighth minute and put Kenya on the back foot immediately.
Borges playing poorly was a downer, though. There was neither pace nor precision in his movements when he was on the field, and his lack of confidence showed throughout. With his height making him a valuable asset among Indian footballers, Constantine must hope that he can recover some form and fitness before January.
Don't let the stats of conceding just two goals in 360 minutes fool you -- if there was a glaring weakness in the Indian game, it was their defence.
Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika did well enough against the inexperienced Chinese Taipei in the opening game, but their lack of communication was exposed by Kenya in the second league game. India won the match comfortably in the end, but the best chances of the match fell to the Kenyans, who routinely were able to cut the defence open with their passes, but failed with the finish.
New Zealand could have had more than just two goals in their 2-1 win, and Jhingan's absence in that match forced Constantine to field Subhasish Bose as centre-back. Aerial balls were poorly dealt with by the Indian defence, and gaps were left behind the full-backs in virtually every game. A stretched defence against teams ranked well outside the top 100 might not have hurt India, but they would get penalised against better opposition.
As things stand, the next confirmed assignment for India is the SAFF Championships in Bangladesh in September. That will leave them with just a little over three months before the Asian Cup, where they are grouped alongside Bahrain, Thailand and hosts UAE. There are reports of the Indian government not having cleared the team for the Asian Games in Indonesia in August.
Barring Australia, every one of India's potential opponents in UAE next January are likely to field their best Under-23 teams (with three over-age players each) for the Asian Games, and India must ensure to send a team that will get exposure and see further competition for places in the months to come.