AFC Asian Cup: 'Did not expect India to perform so well', says Bhutia

Former Indian football captain Bhaichung Bhutia also felt the gap between India and the rest of Asia is not too wide.

India lost 1-0 to Bahrain ending India's hopes of qualifying for the Asian Cup 2019 knockouts for the first time in the tournament's history.   -  AFP

Bhaichung Bhutia was impressed with India's campaign at the AFC Asian Cup 2019 in UAE despite the team's dramatic group-stage exit.

India lost 1-0 to Bahrain on Monday, conceding a 91st-minute penalty. Jamal Rashed slotted home, ending India's hopes of qualifying for the knockouts for the first time in the tournament's history. 

The 2-0 loss to host UAE earlier meant India finished with three points in Group A, having started the tournament with a 4-1 win over Thailand.

READ | Thai high, UAE despair, Bahrain heartbreak: India's Asian Cup journey

"I did not expect them to perform the way they did," said Bhutia, a former India international with 107 caps. "They have really done well. They were very, very unlucky against both UAE and Bahrain. We could have taken the lead against UAE with three-four goals and we could have had a goalless draw against Bahrain. The boys should not feel bad about it and should keep their chin up."

Bhutia, who captained the side in the 2011 edition in Qatar, was surprised by India's style of football in the tournament. The win over Thailand saw the team play swift counter-attacking football. "Their body language was very positive and they looked mentally very confident." He conceded that this side's positivity and mental strength was better than his 2011 side. 

"Their [performance] surprised me. I wasn't surprised by their fitness levels knowing [coach Stephen] Constantine [because] he keeps them really fit. The good thing was their attitude and approach to the matches were very positive," he said.


'Not surprised with defensive approach'

India's defensive set-up in its final group stage match allowed Bahrain to take 22 shots on goal as compared to the Blue Tigers' three. Bhutia, however, didn't find fault in coach Constantine's tactics.

"When we have a team which goes all out to defend, it's bound to happen and we have to defend (deep). This happens to every team. These kind of matches (playing for a draw) are always difficult.

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"It wasn't surprising. India was not in a do-or-die situation so that made them look to defending more, while the other teams (Thailand and Bahrain) were in a do-or-die situation. I don't think there is anything wrong in the approach," said Bhutia.

Bhaichung Bhutia (L) felt the tournament showed that India was not far off from the rest of Asia.   -  Prashant Nakwe

 

He praised the squad and declined to highlight any individual. Bhutia, however, had words of praise for the young attacking trio of Ashique Kuruniyan, Udanta Singh and Anirudh Thapa.

"They were very impressive. It's one of the biggest tournaments in the world and the biggest in Asia. The young boys looked confident and were positive," he said.


No gulf in quality

A teary Constantine bid adieu to his second spell in Indian football in the aftermath of his team's elimination. Bhutia had warm words for the outgoing coach.

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"He has done really well. From [FIFA ranking of] 173 when he came in 2015, [he took India] to 96 and also qualifying for the Asian Cup. He has also won quite a lot of tournaments (SAFF Championship 2016, Intercontinental Cup 2018). The result ultimately speaks for the coach and the team. He leaves with a legacy now and somebody coming in will take it further from there," he said.

Bhutia felt the tournament showed that India was not far off from the rest of Asia. "The gulf is definitely not there between India and the rest of Asia. It's difficult to say whether the other teams have come down. But looking at the last three matches, there was not much difference in the performance and the quality of players."

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