SAFF success and performance set India on right path for Asian Cup

India’s national football team successfully defended their SAFF Championship title, but the journey was fraught with challenges. 

Published : Jul 16, 2023 16:45 IST - 7 MINS READ

Nine lives: The India football team beat Kuwait in the final.
Nine lives: The India football team beat Kuwait in the final. | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K

Nine lives: The India football team beat Kuwait in the final. | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K

Fresh from clinching the Intercontinental Cup in Bhubaneshwar, India had to shift base immediately to Bengaluru for the SAFF Championship. With eight titles (at the time) and starting the tournament as the defending champions, the Blue Tigers were touted as the favourites on home soil. But this time, it wasn’t just the South Asian countries the Indians had to think about.

The West Asian countries of Lebanon and Kuwait were invited to compete in the SAFF Cup. It was the first time in the competition’s history that a country outside the South Asian Football Federation would participate in the competition.

While India had an idea about Lebanon, having faced it twice in the Intercontinental Cup and beaten it in the final, Kuwait was mostly an unknown entity. The two nations last clashed in an international friendly in 2010, where the Blue Tigers suffered a 9-1 drubbing against the Al-Azraqs.

Indian captain Sunil Chhetri relished the prospect of an added challenge and welcomed the idea of having Lebanon and Kuwait, saying that facing tougher teams will only help India sharpen its skills ahead of facing heavyweights such as Syria, Uzbekistan and Australia in the Asian Cup next year.

In the end, India reigned supreme and defended its SAFF title successfully, beating Kuwait 5-4 on penalties in the summit clash, but the route to victory wasn’t straightforward.

Tumult on the touchlines

India head coach Igor Stimac was in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons and saw two red cards in the tournament that prevented the Croat from being on the touchlines for even one full match.

The first came in India’s opener against Pakistan, where he got his marching orders for a touchline scuffle that started when Stimac impeded a Pakistan throw-in. The second came against Kuwait, when he saw red because of caustic remarks directed at the match official.

All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Kalyan Chaubey lauded Stimac for the work he put in behind the scenes but said that “two red cards in a tournament is not expected from a coach of his stature and experience.” Commenting on the coach’s prolonged absence, Chhetri, too, said that it is not beneficial for the ‘leader’ to be absent on the sidelines, especially during high-tension matches like the semifinal and the final.

READ | Indian football team set to miss Asian Games for second successive editions

The only positive that emerged from Stimac’s indiscipline was assistant coach Mahesh Gawli’s coming into the spotlight. He was an energetic presence on the pitch, constantly screaming instructions at his players. Off the pitch, he maintained an equally reserved demeanour, resorting to short one-liners when asked about the team’s performance. The only time Gawli made his voice clear was during his harsh criticism directed at SAFF officials for their “unfair” treatment towards Stimac, who, according to Gawli, was a victim of the sub-standard refereeing.

Giant leap: India’s Sandesh Jhingan in action during the SAFF final. 
Giant leap: India’s Sandesh Jhingan in action during the SAFF final.  | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K

Giant leap: India’s Sandesh Jhingan in action during the SAFF final.  | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K

Solid backline-stagnant midfield-poor finishing

India’s biggest positive in recent times has been its defence. It enjoyed clean sheets in all four matches in the Intercontinental Cup win, and in the SAFF Championships, the Blue Tigers conceded just two goals in five matches — both against Kuwait in the group stage and final, respectively.

While Sandesh Jhingan and Anwar Ali have become a formidable duo at the heart of the backline, Stimac has used attacking fullbacks in Nikhil Poojary and Akash Mishra. Starting with his preferred 4-3-3, India has often transformed into a 3-5-2, where Poojary and Mishra have operated as wingbacks and supported the wingers.

With the defence looking in shape, the Blue Tigers’ concern starts further up the pitch. Their lack of creativity in the middle of the park has been alarming, and throughout the SAFF Championship, there was hardly any buildup from midfield.

India has able workhorses like Anirudh Thapa, Jeakson Singh and Sahal Abdul Samad in midfield. While Jeakson was a strong presence in the defensive midfield position, playing a crucial role in breaking the transitional plays of opponents, Sahal and Thapa left the crowd yearning for more with their overall decision-making.

The primary issue in the Indian midfield boiled down to holding the ball for too long. Delaying the final pass resulted in a lot of moves breaking down, including a lot of counterattacks. Also, the midfield seemed to be overdependent on Chhetri, and the first instinct was to pass the ball to the Indian captain, even if it was not always the most viable option.

India’s finishing in the final third also raised doubts about how ready this team is to face higher-ranked teams in the future. Compared to the chance creation, the finishing was majorly lacking.

Speaking on this, Chhetri said, “Our conversion rate was poor in terms of other attributes of the game like defence, attacking corners, defensive corners, and time management. The final pass and the finishing were probably the poorest parts of our game in totality.”

As for Stimac, he also did not mince his words and said that his players are carrying bad habits from the Indian Super League (ISL). Criticising their decision-making in the final third, he pointed out that they tend to pass a lot when there are shooting opportunities.

Apart from its defence, India’s football down the flanks was another positive. Lallianzuala Chhangte was a menace on the right flank with his ability to take on defenders and deliver accurate crosses in the middle of the box. On the left, the experienced Ashique Kuruniyan wasn’t at his crossing best. However, his ability to retain the ball under pressure was an asset for the Blue Tigers.

Talking about wingers, one cannot exclude Naorem Mahesh Singh, who was a revelation in the SAFF Championship. Mainly used from the bench, the youngster impressed on the left whenever he was put on. Apart from his crossing ability, Mahesh possesses excellent close control, which is useful in tight areas. There were multiple occasions where he looked like he would concede possession, but his quick feet and close control bailed him out, and before his marker realised it, he was already past him.

The group stage match against Nepal turned into a special night for Mahesh, as he scored his debut goal for India and bagged an assist after setting up Chhetri for his 91st international goal. The performance earned him the ‘Man of the Match’ award.

Coach class: Igor Stimac celebrates with the trophy
Coach class: Igor Stimac celebrates with the trophy | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K

Coach class: Igor Stimac celebrates with the trophy | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K

Time and space important for the team

Overall, it has been a fruitful national camp for India in terms of silverware, but the work does not stop here. With the Asian Cup on the horizon, Chhetri said the team needs to improve all departments, and lengthy national camps are important for the players to function as a unit.

Stimac put out a direct message to the authorities, demanding longer national camps.

“[The] Asian Cup is far away. The most important time for the National team of India to prepare well for the Asian Cup is December. We are looking for a minimum [of] four weeks [of] preparation. The rest doesn’t matter.”

The Croat said his team needs to be given time and space to work together. If not, then his players or staff would not be liable to take responsibility. Senior players like Chhetri and Jhingan also backed their coach’s demand.

India’s next assignment is the King’s Cup in Thailand, where it will be the second-highest-ranked team (100) after Iran (70). Apart from Iran, the Blue Tigers would have Lebanon and host Thailand to cope with. With the Asian Cup on the horizon, winning matches and gaining morale are paramount for India, and it will hope to carry its positive momentum into the tournament and add another feather to its cap by winning it for the first time.

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