The Indian football team qualified for the SAFF Championship final after beating Lebanon 4-2 on penalties on Saturday evening.
Yet another match where the Blue Tigers did not have head coach Igor Stimac in the dugout due to his suspension after seeing his second red card against Kuwait, the team was ably guided by assistant coach Mahesh Gawli from the sidelines.
“I think the first 15 minutes; we were a bit sloppy. After that, we dominated the match. We could see the intensity. Credit to the boys. They played really well. I think the chances we got, the score could have been 3-0 or 4-0,” Gawli said when asked about the team’s performance.
India could not find the net in regulation time, but the Blue Tigers had their fair share of chances, with captain Sunil Chhetri, Udanta Singh, Jeakson Singh and Lallianzuala Chhangte all squandering clear-cut chances to break the deadlock.
With Sandesh Jhingan missing the semifinals due to a one-match suspension because of two accumulated yellow cards against Pakistan and Kuwait, the onus was on the in-form Anwar Ali to marshal the backline, which the 22-year-old did with utmost efficiency.
“As I told you about Mahesh [Naorem Singh], Anwar Ali is a brilliant talent, and he is the future star of the Indian football team. He is very sensible; he is very intelligent. He is agile, and his confidence level is very high. I think he will be a top-class defender in the future,” states Gawli.
The Indian team has been playing consecutive matches, with the gap between the clashes being less than 72 hours, which is considered ideal for recovery in footballing standards. Despite the demanding schedule, the Blue Tigers have put in a good work rate and have not had significant injuries.
Talking about the team’s overall fitness levels, Gawli said it is a gradual process – “Yes, I’d like to say that if you get one week, you can’t do anything. But when you get one month or more [you can increase it]. I think we had almost 50 days. Our strength and conditioning coach, Luka [Radman], has done a wonderful job. We have seen our players playing without injuries, and there have been no cramps.”
Fresh legs and tactical changes
On Saturday, India changed as many as five of its six defensive players from the draw against Kuwait, with only Anwar retaining his spot. Asked why a major shuffle was made, given it was the semifinals, Gawli cited squad rotation as the reason.
“We just wanted fresh legs. Akash [Mishra] and [Nikhil] Poojary have been playing continuously. So, we wanted to get Subhasish [Bose] and Pritam [Kotal]. They did a very good job.”
Tactical tweaks were also made as Mahesh, who usually plays on the left flank, was deployed behind Chhetri when he was subbed on against Lebanon.
“He [Mahesh], as a player, is very intelligent. We wanted him to play there and feed the wingers and Sunil Chhetri. And he was doing that. We kept Ashique on the left because of the physicality, and he was doing well. He was running a lot. We did not want to change that.”
The Indian team learnt on Friday that the SAFF disciplinary committee had slapped Stimac with a two-match suspension, which means that the Croat will not be there on the sidelines against Kuwait in the final. Gawli said that the decision was unfair, and the boys are motivated even more to perform well for him and the nation.
“It is unfair to the coach. He shouldn’t have been banned for two matches. I don’t understand the logic. If you hit someone, then it is understandable, but this is a totally different case. And obviously, the boys are playing for the coach and the country.”
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