AFC Asian Cup 2019: In 45 minutes, Stephen Constantine's India tear up the form book

Sunil Chhetri
Sunil Chhetri's brace set India on their way to a famous win
Modified 07 Jan 2019

Indians are acquainted with Shah Rukh Khan and the famous "Sattar Minute" monologue from Chak De India. Now, nobody knows if Stephen Constantine had it in him to do something similar at half-time at the Al-Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi on Sunday. But, boy, those 45 minutes! Forty-five minutes that will define Indian Football for a while to come.

Funnily enough, it was the most that Constantine had veered away from his set ways in the four years of his second stint as India manager. India were on the front-foot, India pressed high, the front-four were combining so well. None of that dire long-ball football that we've come to expect in the face of even half-decent opposition.

On Sunday evening in Abu Dhabi, Constantine's India were a credit to themselves, a credit to the coach, a credit to Indian football.

And yet, it all started in the same old way. That same, old, annoying India. They had two not-so-big guys up front, and they hoofed balls up to them.

We need to talk about Ashique Kuruniyan. A young man who was playing his first competitive international for his country, in the biggest tournament his country will play in a while. He was so good. He ran the channels so well, he used his pace so well, he's so deceptively strong, and he revelled in the responsibility.

It wasn't an easy responsibility. India had only 35% of the ball over the 90 minutes. It would have been easy for him to stop running. But, after India came out for the second period, everything changed. Ironically, it was a piece of bad control from Ashique that set up the moment which turned the game on its head.

Ashique Kuruniyan was thrust into the limelight, and he put in a Man of the Match performance
Ashique Kuruniyan was thrust into the limelight, and he put in a Man of the Match performance

Sunil Chhetri profited from that to score his second of the game, and how sublime was that finish?! Let's talk about Chhetri, then. He's 34. He's had a tiff with the coach, that is an open secret, he's had his captain's armband taken away from him. Yet, when you saw that second half, there was only one real leader of the men in white. He is who they look up to, he is who they still need to change games, he is their talisman.

Let's talk about Jeje Lalpekhlua and confidence. It's a weird thing, isn't it? The Mizo Sniper hadn't scored for club or country since the Intercontinental Cup in June. What right does he have to be toe-poking one into the top corner? He did that two minutes after being brought on as a substitute, replacing Ashique. It would have been easy for Jeje to feel sorry for himself, having lost his spot to Ashique. But, no. He put the icing on top of what was India's sweetest cake in ages.

What about Udanta Singh and Halicharan Narzary? What about their desire, and their stubborn refusal to stop running? What about Udanta's presence of mind? He really had botched up the chance to score, after being handed it on a plate by Chhetri. Yet, he pulled it back for Anirudh Thapa to score the sweetest of goals.

How can we not talk about Anirudh Thapa and his first goal for the country? Having the ability to do that is one thing. It is quite another to have the temperament and the composure to do that on a night as big as this.

Finally, we need to talk about Stephen Constantine and bravery. The Englishman has taken stick from all corners, and maybe justifiably. At the end of India's opening game of the biggest tournament Constantine has led them in, the bald-headed, bespectacled boss had the proverbial index finger out, it was placed on his lips, and directed at all those critics.

India pressed high, India were so brave. In that second half, they had to be. Thailand showed in the first half that they would be able to run rings had the Blue Tigers offered them too much respect. So, India came out in the second-half, and from the first minute, their feet were on Thai throats. Pritam Kotal went in firmly on Thai talisman Chanathip Songkrasin, and set off India's move to take the lead.

From then on, India never looked back. The Al-Nahyan Stadium was a sea of India blue anyway, and it rejoiced. Chhetri maybe sans the armband, but still was the leader of one of the most significant Viking Claps in the history of Indian Football.

And then there was the architect of it all, the man who stayed calm through the euphoria of four goals, the man who knows his task now is to keep all Indian feet firmly planted on the ground.

For Stephen Constantine's India, they were the most beautiful 45 minutes ever. Who knows what on earth could be in store for this team?

They want to make India dream.

Published 07 Jan 2019
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