A change in approach saw India shift gears as it beat Vanuatu 1-0 to make it to the Intercontinental Cup final, at the Kalinga Stadium, on Monday.
India remained goalless against a defensively stubborn opponent in the first half despite some early chances.
The most promising one came from Nandhakumar Sekar in the 16th minute, which was blocked by Vanuatu and the cat-and-mouse game to find a break continued till the hour mark.
It was then that head coach Igor Stimac made three changes, replacing Liston Colaco, Rowllin Borges and Rohit Kumar with Sahal Abdul Samad, Jeakson Singh and Anirudh Thapa.
“The message was simple – to play more attacking football. In the first half, we were keeping the ball pretty well but the passes were not going up (in front). The attacking passes were not quite there,” Thapa told Sportstar after the match.
Thapa, coming on after the hour mark, had an instant effect on the game, ultimately contributing to the winner by Sunil Chhetri.
Thapa was involved in both of India’s goals against Mongolia in its previous match.
In the second minute, he had received Anwar Ali’s through ball along the right flank after a sprint and his cross, saved by Mongolian goalie Munkh-Erdene Enkhtaivan, was slotted into the net by Sahal on the follow-up. Later, his corner kick was ultimately struck by Lallianzuala Chhangte just after Sandesh Jhingan’s header was saved.
Against Vanuatu, the stakes were higher.
A win for Vanuatu here would have made the race to the Intercontinental Cup final a three-horse race. When nothing seemed to be working, Stimac turned to Thapa for answers.
“He wanted me and Sahal to push up more and help Sunil bhai (Sunil Chhetri) and keep the pressure high,” Thapa said.
The ploy worked. Thapa disrupted the defence, switching his runs along either flank, making runs behind the back-line and orchestrating the attack in the midfield.
In the 85th minute, the opening finally arrived – a diagonal ball from Thapa to Subhasish Bose, whose cross was then chested down and struck into the net by Chhetri. The lone goal proved to be the winner as India qualified for the final.
India had made nine changes from the side that won the previous match, against a side better-ranked than its previous opponent.
“I think everyone (who is here) is capable of representing India at any given point in time and it is good for them and the team that it gives the coach options to try with the team,” Thapa said.
The Blue Tigers play Lebanon two days later before meeting it again in the final on June 18.
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