Lack of positivity could end India’s Australia 2015 dream prematurely
The Wim Koevermans era started on a winning note last year, as India won the Nehru Cup. Back-to-back defeats against Singapore and Palestine in international friendlies were a timely reminder of where India stands in Asia.
The real test for Koevermans and his team however would be in the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers. Placed in a group with two lower ranked teams Chinese Taipei (171) and Guam (181) and hosts Myanmar (164), automatic qualification was the minimum target for the Dutchman.
But the Euro 1988 winner has failed in that objective, and Indian football fans now have to look at other results and hope that their nation qualifies as one of the two best second-placed teams (although even that looks unlikely).
Koevermans and his coaching staff can only look back at what might have been. Of course the players also have to take responsibility, but when the squad selection, team selection and substitutions are questionable, most of the blame has to fall on the coach and his think tank.
The Dutchman left out in-form I-League players like Dharmaraj Ravanan, Naoba Singh, Harmanjot Singh Khabra, Lalrindika Ralte, and Subhash Singh from the squad. To give him the benefit of doubt, Koevermans, like many national team coaches around the world, picked a tried and tested lot.
However his team selection was more baffling and in the end proved to be costly. The former Holland international picked a 4-4-1-1 system even against a lower-ranked opponent like Chinese Taipei. Although his plan to play Jewel Raja just behind Sunil Chhetri paid off, India defeated Chinese Taipei only by a solitary goal thanks to a stoppage time winner from Robin Singh.
Surely, he had to play two strikers against Guam, but Koevermans once again played only Sunil upfront, and although India won 4-0, they could and should have won by more, but the absence of clinical finishers in the eleven saw them waste plenty of chances.
Eventually, that failure to win by bigger margins in the first two games could deny India a place in Maldives 2014, as Group D runners-up Bangladesh have already bettered their goal difference by one goal.
Koevermans could have easily paired skipper Sunil with Robin or even Jeje Lalpekhlua in the first two games and ensured a much better goal difference, but he was too cautious, and that lack of positivity was seen in final group game against Myanmar also.
India came into Wednesday’s game needing only a point to win the group and automatically qualify. Their confidence must have been sky-high as well, but Koevermans set his team out to play for the point, which is always a dangerous strategy.
A 4-4-1-1 system against a technically superior team like Myanmar was justified, but the approach wasn’t. India were playing on the counter attack but not pushing too many bodies forward in their breaks.
India were just happy to keep the clean sheet, and although Myanmar’s dominance in the game was rising, Koevermans never looked to give the opponents a problem in their own half, and instead only made a change in midfield when the score was goalless.
The biggest blunder possibly was to leave out Syed Rahim Nabi from the first eleven. The reigning AIFF Player of the Year was left out of the first game also, but surely his experience and ability to score and create was essential for a pressure match. But Koevermans ignored that aspect completely, and only brought on Nabi in the 83rd minute. It was too late then for India’s Mr. Versatile to influence the game.
Some might argue that the Indian team also needed some rotation, as they were playing their third match in five days, with Jewel, Clifford Miranda and even Lenny Rodrigues looking a bit tired. But what let India really down was their overcautious approach throughout the qualifiers.
That attitude denied them bigger wins in the first two games, while against Myanmar they were given the ultimate punishment, as the South East Asian nation ran out 1-0 winners.
The dream of playing in the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia could already be over for India, and as Koevermans admitted after the Myanmar defeat, they have only themselves to blame.