India thrashed Hong Kong 4-0 at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata on Tuesday to qualify for the 2023 Asian Cup after topping group D. The Blue Tigers won each of their three group matches to qualify for the competition for the second successive time.
The Blue Tigers had previously beaten Cambodia and Afghanistan in their other group matches. Igor Stimac’s side, who won the SAFF Cup in 2021, look in good shape and should be well-equipped to perform creditably in next year’s continental tournament.
On that note, we would take a look at three positives to take away from India’s successful qualification campaign.
#1 Junior players performing well
A number of Indian youngsters like Akash Mishra, Aashique Kurunian, Anwar Ali, Suresh Singh, Jeakson Singh, Sahal Abdul Samad and Roshan Singh performed well in the qualification campaign.
20-year-old left-back Akash Mishra was a revelation and made his mark both in attack and in defense. He tirelessly went on many overlapping runs and sent in crosses from the left flank. Mishra also came up with timely tackles and blocks in the defensive third to thwart the opposition defenders. At times, he even moved inside and took shots at the opposition goal.
Roshan Singh played reasonably well on the right side of the defense despite having a stronger left foot and Suresh shielded the centre-backs with his work rate and tactical awareness. Jeakson looked composed while distributing and Sahal and Anwar scored important goals to help India’s cause.
24-year-old Aashique also deserves a special mention for his tireless runs down the left flank. He notched up a couple of assists and always looked dangerous when India launched counter-attacks.
#2 Effective wing play
The Indian wingers performed admirably in the qualification campaign. Both Aashique and Manvir registered assists and were relentless in delivering the ball into the opposition penalty box.
Aashique combined very well with Mishra on the left. Udanta Singh, who started against Hong Kong in place of Manvir, contributed to India’s opening goal by delivering a cross with his right foot from the left flank.
In each of the three matches India played, the wingers, along with the full-backs, kept delivering crosses into the opposition box on a regular basis. However, at times there was nobody except Sunil Chhetri inside the penalty box to meet those crosses as India’s lone striker was often outnumbered by the opposition defenders.
Still, at least four of the eight goals scored by India came from crosses from either wing. It is testimony to India’s effective wing-play and is undoubtedly an encouraging sign.
#3 Sunil Chhetri defying age
The 37-year-old Indian captain scored four goals in the qualification campaign and now has 84 international goals to his name. Chhetri was the lone striker in India’s 4-2-3-1 formation and shouldered the goal-scoring responsibility.
Moreover, there was variety in the manner in which Chhetri scored his goals. He struck through a wonderful free-kick against Afghanistan and controlled the ball with an exceptional first touch before finishing coolly against Hong Kong. He also scored through a header and a penalty against Cambodia.
If India are to fare reasonably well in the Asian Cup, Chhetri will have to be close to his best. He would be a year older during next year’s tournament and Igor Stimac will have to use Chhetri's services judiciously until then.
It would be smart to make sure that Chhetri remains injury-free and does not exert himself prior to the tournament.