AFC Asian Cup 2019: Can the Blue Tigers cross the final group hurdle?
India earned a collective salute from the football world after their superlative performances against Thailand and hosts UAE in the 2019 Asian Cup.
In their opening game, India mauled Thailand 4-1 that lead to the sacking of their coach Milovan Rajevac. The Blue Tigers came up with a good pressing football riding on swift counter-attacks. The trio of Ashique Kuruniyan, Udanta Singh and Anirudh Thapa turned out to be the perfect supply line for Sunil Chhetri as he put Thailand to the sword.
Meanwhile, coach Stephen Constantine deploying Ashique up front alongside Chhetri proved to be a masterstroke. Ashique used his physicality well to hold up play, often linking up with the offensive trio of Udanta, Halicharan Narzary and Sunil Chhetri. His dribbling and pacy runs in behind the defence proved to be a constant thorn in the side of the Thailand defence all night.
The omission of Jeje Lalpekhlua from India's starting line-up raised many eyebrows, but at the end, Constantine’s decision turned out to be an inspired one as Ashique was integral to India's sensational win over Thailand.
The outcome against Thailand was something that nobody had expected but the empathic win lit the hope of conquering UAE at their own backyard.
Constantine men stuck to a similar script against UAE. India played a very strong pressing game, putting pressure on the opponents as much as possible. The high-intensity approach of Stephen Constantine’s side almost yielded fruit, but their profligacy in front of goal ultimately came back to haunt them.
UAE scored on either side of the half, but India was clearly the better side for most parts and came painfully close on numerous occasions to put the game past the Emiratis.
With India 1-0 down at half-time, Constantine felt the need to make changes and so brought on the Jeje in place of Halicharan Narzary. As a result, Ashique was shifted to left wing and Jeje partnered Sunil at the top.
Unfortunately, the move did not pan out as well as he would have liked. It only served to remove the bite from India’s play. Ashique looked a pale shadow of his usual self at the left-wing position.
He hardly troubled UAE’s right-back. It was partly because he was so predictable, charging down the outside and trying to send crosses into the box. His intentions were easier to read.
Perhaps, India would have been better served had Constantine replaced Halicharan with Jackichand Singh and stuck with Ashique as a deep-lying forward alongside Chettri.
Jackichand for Halicharan would have been a like-for-like substitution, both adept at playing as “inverted" wingers.
Deploying a right-footed Jackichand on the left flank, where he could either cut inside to shoot at goal or link up with fellow forwards through clever one-touch play or utilize his pace and dribbling ability on the outside to swing crosses into the box, could have been a useful different option. It helps to have advanced wide players who have different layers to their game.
Meanwhile, Udanta Singh is something of a throwback to wingers of eras past; a player who prioritizes hitting the byline, sprinting down the right channel, twisting and turning defenders inside out before delivering a telling final ball. While undoubtedly a one-trick pony, it's a trick that has proved to be so effective.
In truth, Constantine appears to have found the perfect balance with Udanta on the right and Halicharan on the opposite flank.
Teams who attack in a one- dimensional nature, are generally worked out and neutralized fairly quickly. Constantine knows that better than anyone, of course.
Switching Ashique to the right wing spot in place of the tiring Udanta Singh could have been a better option against UAE. At FC Pune City, Ashique has played exclusively as a winger. He thrives on the right wing, frequently drifting inside on his dominant left foot. Dynamic and direct as well a tricky dribbler, Ashique in that sense is a classic winger.
Using him as a second striker is a gamble that has paid off and Constantine should continue to do so in the match against Bahrain. Despite being entirely untested as a striker at any level, let a Ashique has impressed in his new role. His versatility makes him a vital cog in the Indian side.
Perhaps, India will rue the fact it did not play enough friendlies against tougher opponents in preparation for the major event. It would have allowed Constantine the opportunity to experiment with team selection and tactics before the tournament proper.
As we saw on Thursday against UAE, the difference between success and failure in football can come down to extremely fine margins. And at a tournament like this, it is usually the best-prepared team that comes out on top.
The Indians might lack in ability, but they make up for that with superb team spirit and enormous character, and it is amazing how far that can take you. It would be interesting to see whether that would be enough to pull India through to the knockout stage.