Bangladesh made history when it won the SAFF Women’s Championship for the first time, beating Nepal 1-0 at the Dasharath Stadium in Kathmandu.
The maiden title for the Bengal Tigresses saw the team earn the status of a trailblazer in women’s football in the country. Their captain Sabina Khatun won the Golden Boot and the Most Valuable Award for eight goals in five games.
For India, it was a reality check. The Blue Tigresses, the record winner with five SAFF Championship titles, had started the tournament on a high, beating Pakistan 3-0 and hammering Maldives 9-0.
In the next match, against Bangladesh – a team it had brushed aside in the semifinal three years ago – India conceded three goals.
Though the team was through to the semifinals, Nepal exploited India’s weakness to knock it out of the competition.
India had won every edition of the SAFF Women’s Championship since its inception in 2010.
For the 2022 edition, Suren Chhetri helmed the side after head coach Thomas Dennerby turned his focus to the U17 women’s team (ahead of the World Cup).
The final squad had big absentes, including first-team regulars Dalima Chhibber – the most valuable player of the last edition – and striker Manisha Kalyan, the first Indian footballer to play in the UEFA Champions League.
In 2019 SAFF Championships, India had scored 18 goals and conceded just one (in the final against Nepal).
This year, it scored 12 and conceded four goals. Despite Ashalata Devi standing firm at the back, India struggled to defend in numbers when it was exposed by Bangladesh and later pipped by the host.
Problems in transitions
Dalima’s runs along the flanks were the most important aspect of the three defender backline – something India suffered from against Bangladesh and Nepal.
Chhetri began the tournament with a 4-3-3 formation which changed to a 3-5-2 fluid formation based on circumstances. The high line it maintained in the opening half of most matches deceived the opponent into an offside trap.
At the same time, when a counterattack arrived, the side was pushed to the backfoot, failing to track back and conceding eventually – for example, the opening goal by Bangladesh against India in its last group stage fixture.
“There was a huge communication gap in our previous game,” Chhetri had said after the match, “We won’t repeat the same mistakes.”
Taking up the job of an interim manager three months before the SAFF Championship and tweaking the usual 4-3-3 formation could also be one of the reasons behind Indian Tigresses' early exit.
SAFF Women’s Championship had positives to show as well.
Despite the disappointing performance in Kathmandu this month, there is hope for India.
“The mix of seniors and the younger ones will surely help us achieve the target,” Chhetri had said before leaving for Nepal. Partly, his statement had some truth. India saw more youngsters step up to the big stage at the SAFF Championship this time.
Soumya Guguloth – who became the first Indian player to sign for Croatian side Dinamo Zagreb women – scored two goals in the tournament, while 18-year-old Martina Thokchom impressed in the midfield.
With the FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup scheduled next month, team India looks on course to produce even more youngsters. But the sudden upset – in a tournament India has dominated for a decade – will keep the team on its toes.
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