SAFF Championship 2021: Chhetri saves India blushes but creative problems persist

Sunil Chhetri equalled Pele's record of 77 international goals. Image Credit: AIFF Media
Sunil Chhetri equalled Pele's record of 77 international goals. Image Credit: AIFF Media
Tanay Apte

India lived to fight another day after a late Sunil Chhetri goal gave them a 1-0 win over Nepal at the SAFF Championship 2021. The skipper’s second half strike ensured that the Blue Tigers were in charge of their own destiny ahead of the game against Maldives.

After failing to break down Sri Lanka in the previous match, it looked set to be another frustrating game for India. But despite the wasteful finishing, their persistence paid off eight minutes from time. Chhetri’s finish has set up a virtual semi-final against hosts Maldives.

India head coach Igor Stimac made five changes to the team that drew goalless against Sri Lanka, mostly in midfield and attack. Brandon Fernandes, Apuia Ralte and Mohammed Yasir started in midfield. Manvir Singh partnerdc Chhetri up front. In defense, Pritam Kotal came in for Seriton Fernandes at right-back.

Lining up in an asymmetrical 4-1-3-2, India’s onus seemed to be on creativity from midfield rather than the flanks like last time against Sri Lanka. Stimac opted for 4 full-backs again in defense with Apuia playing as an anchorman in front of them.

Brandon took up a left-sided attacking midfield role but more infield than Yasir on the left who started out wide before cutting in. Suresh Singh Wangjam was tasked with filling the central midfield position for India, suiting his boundless energy.

Lack of creativity plaguing Indian attack

Nepal’s gameplan was clear from the start as they set up a low block of five defenders, four midfielders and a lone striker. They allowed India to have the ball, soaking up the pressure before trying to counter. But in most cases, their lone attackers up front, Manish Dangi in the first half and Anjan Bista in the second, were given poor service.

In the first half, India went through the motions as Nepal did not allow them any way through the center of the pitch. The final ball was lacking and the Indians did not seem to have a good understanding of where their teammates would make runs. Some wayward long-range efforts also did not help the cause.

Chhetri had the best chance of the first half when an overlapping Pritam sent in a low cross only for the skipper to miss an open goal. That miss summed up India’s awful footballing week at the SAFF Championship 2021. But to their credit, they kept probing for an opening.

Stimac’s substitutions in the second half were a mixed bag. Anirudh Thapa and Udanta Singh came on but failed to make any sort of impact and left the team with an overload of midfielders behind Chhetri. Liston Colaco and Farukh Chaudhary were next to enter the fray and the latter did have some kind of desired impact.

Farukh played in a more central attacking role with Liston occupying the left flank. He made a diagonal run into space behind Nepal’s left side of defense, which was picked out superbly by Brandon. Farukh’s flick-on from Brandon’s aerial ball was finished first time by Chhetri into the far post.

The muted celebration from the skipper was probably a huge sigh of relief after his first-half miss. India did create a few more chances than last time with a few more shots on target as well. But they are still struggling to break down opponents who sit deep.

Hosts Maldives will provide a different test and only a win will send India into the SAFF Championship 2021 final. Any other result and Stimac, along with the AIFF, will have to face the wrath of Indian football fans.

Edited by Diptanil Roy
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