India added its latest feather to its cap by winning the SAFF Championship for the ninth time by beating Kuwait 5-4 on penalties in the final. Having already clinched the Intercontinental Cup before the SAFF win, the lengthy national camp has been a success for Igor Stimac, giving the Blue Tigers valuable experience and game time as part of their buildup to the AFC Asian Cup next year.
The Indian team, despite its recent successes, is still a work in progress. Stimac, post the SAFF win said, This [The SAFF Cup win] was good, we created memories, and we proved once again to everyone [that] when we are given time to work together, to create an environment which can produce results for Indian football, then we are successful as a team, and you can enjoy the game we play.”
Stressing the importance of being given time, Stimac said that “Neither my players nor the staff are taking responsibility for the results in the future if we are not given time to work together.”
With due respect to the opposition India has faced in the Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championships, the teams that the Blue Tigers will face in the Asian Cup next year (Syria, Uzbekistan and Australia in the group stage) are undoubtedly a few notches higher when it comes to footballing quality and ranking.
“[The] Asian Cup is far away. The most important time for the National team of India to prepare well for the Asian Cup is December. We are looking to get [a] minimum of four weeks of preparation. The rest doesn’t matter,” added Stimac.
With two titles in the bag, the following are India’s main takeaways from the Intercontinental and the SAFF Cup.
New players in the fray
Throughout the Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championship, we have seen new players getting the nod. The full-back position has been rejuvenated, with Akash Mishra and Nikhil Poojary being preferred over Pritam Kotal and Subasish Bose. Mishra and Poojary are prime examples of the modern-fullbacks who have a balanced contribution in attack and defence. There have been multiple instances where Stimac has shifted from his preferred 4-3-3 formation to a 3-5-2. This makes the contribution of the two as attacking wingbacks crucial for the Blue Tigers.
One cannot talk about new players and exclude Naorem Mahesh Singh. The 24-year-old forward has been one of the major positives in the Indian national team till now. His close control in the flanks, ability to create space in tight situations and vision of finding bodies inside the box are just some of the qualities that make him an important player.
Against Nepal, Mahesh scored his debut goal for India and also grabbed an assist, setting up Sunil Chhetri for his 91st international strike.
A versatile player who can play on the flanks or behind the forward line, Mahesh can be an asset if he is nurtured and polished properly. Currently, he mainly operates from the bench, but expect him to break into the first team soon if he maintains his current level of football.
India’s compact defence has been at the centre of attention throughout India’s Intercontinental and SAFF campaigns. With Anwar Ali and Sandesh Jhingan at the heart of the backline, the Blue Tigers went on a run of eight successive clean sheets before the streak ended with a 1-1 draw against Kuwait in the SAFF Cup group stages.
The Blue Tigers’ backline isn’t flawless by any means and can improve in a lot of places, like playing out of the back and finding outlets in pressure situations to reduce pressure and ball retention. But, the sheer doggedness of the backline throughout the two tournaments is something that is new in recent times and is a good quality to build upon heading into future tournaments.
Moving beyond Chhetri
‘Who after Chhetri?’- it is a burning question right among Indian football fans. By the look of things, there isn’t one player from the new generation who can replace Chhetri in terms of goalscoring prowess and technical ability, but the answer lies in going for a team-oriented approach instead of focusing on an individual.
That is what the Blue Tigers have tried to do throughout the Intercontinental and SAFF Cup. From the Poojary-Chhangte-Chhetri combination that led to India’s first goal in the Intercontinental Cup final to the Chhetri-Sahal (Abdul Samad)-(Lallianzuala) Chhangte link-up leading to the equaliser in the SAFF Cup final against Kuwait, the answer lies in breaking down the opposition as a team.
There is plenty of football left for the national team to play before the Asian Cup next year, with the Kings Cup and the Merdeka Cup scheduled to be held later this year. With two titles in the bag, the Blue Tigers have made a positive start to the national camp, but the job is not done by any means.
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