It was the final most had predicted. And it was a final that delivered. Amidst a sea of blue at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, with their booming chants of “India, India” and “Vande Mataram”, the home team emerged victorious against Kuwait - albeit through a challenging route, winning the SAFF Championship 5-4 on penalties (after the scoreline was 1-1 after extra-time).
The Blue Tigers and Al-Azraqs had the luxury of already facing each other in the group stages, which helped the sides chalk out the strengths and weaknesses of each other.
From India’s perspective - apart from the ever-pervading spotlight on Sunil Chhetri - the focus was on Anwar Ali and Sandesh Jhingan for the rigid defensive partnership both have formed, which saw the Blue Tigers relish eight successive clean sheets on the trot.
So, when Anwar was stretchered off the pitch in the 35th minute, with India trailing 1-0, there was a chance of the Indian defence losing the plot against a menacing Kuwaiti attack comprising Shabaib Alkhaldi (who scored the opening goal for Kuwait), Mohammad Abdullah and Mobarak Alfaneeni.
But, Mehtab Singh, Anwar’s replacement, found his footing in the match quickly, forming a partnership with Jhingan and keeping the Kuwait attack at bay. It wasn’t the most eye-catching defending by Singh, which mostly included long clearances from the box, but it got the job done.
As far as Jhingan was concerned, he showed why he had been a mainstay in the Indian defence. From risking his body by falling at his opponent’s feet for headed clearances to shielding the ball in the final third, Jhingan marshalled the backline and led the charge to thwart multiple attacks by Kuwait. A special mention goes to his 53rd-minute clearance, where he prevented an almost certain goal by intercepting Abdullah’s pass to Alkhaldi in the box.
Teamwork makes the dream work
Scoring well-worked-out team goals has become customary with the Blue Tigers.
In the Intercontinental Cup final against Lebanon, India’s first goal was a work of art, which started with a backheel nutmeg from fullback Nikhil Poojary, gained momentum with Lallianzuala Chhangte’s pacy run and concluded with a poacher’s finish from Chhetri.
Against Kuwait, 1-0 down, India equalised in style. Ashique Kuruniyan won the ball with his dogged persistence and sent it to his skipper Chhetri. Now, this is where the magic happened. Chhetri showed his immaculate vision to find space between two enclosing Kuwait players and threaded the ball to Sahal Abdul Samad, who found space behind the opponent’s backline. What followed was an astute sense of decision-making by the India No.10. Instead of going for the shot, Sahal spotted Chhangte at the far-post and spread the ball to him, leaving the latter with effectively a tap-in.
For a team that has largely been dependent on the individual brilliance of Chhetri for a long time, goals like this are a testament to the fact that Igor Stimac’s men are making a gradual shift towards a more holistic attacking approach where multiple players are involved instead of making Chhetri the fulcrum of attacking moves all the time.
The transformation is in its infancy, however. Although the overall focus has been on clinical combination plays to open up defences, there is still a tendency to go for Chhetri even when it may not be the viable option. There were multiple instances against Kuwait where a shooting opportunity was presented in the final third to Anirudh Thapa, Sahal and Jeakson Singh, but the players thought the safer option was to find their captain, which saw excellent attacks breaking down because of the anticipation by the Kuwaiti backline.
In a match where India found it difficult to pierce the opponent’s defence, it ultimately boiled down to a penalty-shootout after scores were level after 120 minutes. And that is where its No. 1 stepped in and found his moment of glory.
Thou shalt not pass
You’d love to be Gurpreet Singh Sandhu right now. The India No.1 faced two penalty shootouts in the semifinal and final and emerged victorious in both. In the final, he saved Khaled Hajiah’s penalty to win the title for his team, but it would be wrong to eulogise just the winning save.
Throughout the final and the matches he played in the SAFF Championship, Sandhu has been equally adept with his shot-stopping and sweeping abilities. His save in the second-half additional time off Abdullah’s shot in the final prevented a certain winner. But the defensive aid Sandhu provided to his backline by coming off his line and playing the role of sweeper-keeper to perfection deserves praise. As far as his aerial prowess is concerned, that had always been his strong suit.
Asked about his mantra on handling pressure situations like penalty-shootouts, the keeper said after the final, “I just try to keep my head clear, not try to be too jittery or overconfident.”
Dictating the tempo
If a comparison is drawn between India’s performance against Kuwait in the group-stage match and the final, there is a strong argument that the host dished out a better performance in the former.
In the group-stage clash, the Indians were the ones who were mostly dominating the narrative and were efficiently dealing with the pockets of Kuwaiti dominance. Leading 1-0 courtesy of Chhetri’s goal, be it the defence, winning the midfield battle or attacking play- there was a positive approach. Stimac’s red card proved to be the turning point, and the team looked a bit shaken thereon. Ultimately, it was Anwar’s unfortunate own goal that led to a 1-1 draw.
In contrast, the final clash seemed to be more challenging for the Indians. Apart from the 10-15 minutes before Chhangte’s equaliser, the Blue Tigers could never dictate the tempo of the match for substantial periods, with only the occasional chances coming their way. Their incessant pressing was handled easily by Rui Bento’s men, and the Indians were having difficulty finding outlets to escape the pressure in the final third. The final ball was sub-par during transitional play that broke down multiple counter-attacks. It was down to India’s defensive line that held the ship steady.
In a match of positives and negatives, ultimately, what mattered was the trophy coming to India for the ninth time. With the AFC Asian Cup rapidly approaching, India’s SAFF Cup win, beating two strong West Asian nations in Lebanon and Kuwait, will undoubtedly be a positive stepping stone in the team’s journey towards facing the Asian heavyweights next year.
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