India's first goal at the AFC Asian Cup 2019 came off a penalty and the team was eliminated from the Asian Cup by conceding a penalty. The very same spot 12 yards from the goal that gave India the lead in its opening game against Thailand led to its exit in its final group stage game against Bahrain on Monday. As the French saying goes, c'est la vie: such is life.
India's campaign at the Asian Cup has been an absolute roller-coaster of emotions for its fans. While its win against Thailand instilled hope and warmed the hearts of millions, its heart-wrenching stoppage-time loss to Bahrain dashed the hopes of just as many.
The Indians came into the tournament as underdogs. The naysayers said India wouldn't earn a single point and would stand no chance against Asia's best.
Talking points from India's defeat to Bahrain
The team's stirring performance that led to an astounding 4-1 win over Thailand squashed all such talk and suddenly depicted India as a formidable force. The side's stunning counter-attacking display was a refreshing change from coach Stephen Constantine's tried and tested method of banking on the defence. And Sunil Chhetri's brace made him an instant crowd favourite, so much so that he made the cover of a local newspaper and quite a few locals felt he should play in the UAE Pro-League.
The phenomenal victory instilled a sense of new-found confidence, one that the team needed ahead of its clash against the United Arab Emirates. The Indians had the bulk of chances against UAE. The players defended vigorously and played the better game overall but still ended up on the losing side because they could not convert their chances.
India had nine attempts, three of which were on target and two struck the woodwork, but none gave the side the goal it so desperately needed. UAE, on the other hand, scored of both its shots on target. The loss dented India's hopes but didn't end them. The Blue Tigers only needed a single point from their final group stage match against Bahrain to advance to the knockout stage, which would have been a historic first. Constantine had said before the game that his side would not play for a draw, but it ended up doing just that.
Bahrain mounted the pressure on India from the get-go and seized control of the game. Its attacking line, led by the industrious Jamel Rashed, staged relentless attacks, but the Indian defence somehow managed to nearly hold on till the stoppage-time penalty. It all boiled down to one rash tackle as Pronay Halder tripped AlShamsad in the box and Rashed's conversion from the spot meant the Indians had to pack their bags.
India's performance graph dipped with each passing game. Yes, the Indians did play the better football than their opponents in the first two games, but their inability to seize opportunities in the second game cost them dearly. Against Bahrain, the Indians managed just three goal-bound shots, but none found the target.
Constantine's captaincy rotation policy failed to click in the final game. While Gurpreet Singh Sandhu organised his troops effectively from the back in the first match, Chhetri led his boys from the front against UAE. Giving Halder the armband in the final and most important game confounded many. Halder did not have a bad game, but he did not command the respect or attention that the other two would have. Individually, he had a strong game but as captain, he could have have done more to impose his leadership for the benefit of the team.
Welcome change in tactics
For all the flak Constantine has received for his overly defensive tactics and team selection in the past, his change in tactics at the Asian Cup was a welcome change. "I think the mentality of the team has changed over the years. When I took charge of the team, the mentality was to try not to lose by too many goals. I think that has changed in four years," he said on the eve of India's first game. The change in mentality was on display in the first two games, but fell apart in the final game as India retained bodies at the back in a bid to shield the goal.
The Englishman's exit brings an end to an eventful four-year tenure that saw Indian football make remarkable progress. Apart from taking the side to the Asian Cup, he also led India to victory in the SAFF Cup and the Intercontinental Cup and steered them to a respectable ranking of 97. He will go down in history as the coach who guided India to its first win at the Asian Cup in 55 years.
India's bittersweet run at the Asian Cup did make one aspect very clear: the side has what it takes to compete at this level. The boys showed high levels of fitness, hunger and grit. As Constantine said, India has to qualify for these big tournaments regularly if it is to be successful and seen as a footballing nation.
The road for Indian football is certainly long but the belief is everything. As the slogan on the Indian team bus read, "The hope of a nation" is indeed everything.
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