India managed to register a 2-1 win over Nepal in the second international friendly in Kathmandu, on Sunday, after a 1-1 draw in the first encounter. However, given the current FIFA rankings and the past records, India’s performance against their neighbours was far from convincing.
For teams separated by more than 60 spots in the FIFA rankings, a more-or-less one-sided affair was on the cards, but nothing panned out as per as expected for the Blue Tigers. Rather, the much-fancied visitors were subject to constant threat at the Dasharath Stadium, over the course of two matches, with the vociferous fans not helping their cause. Meanwhile, Nepal utilized the occasion to the fullest and gained some precious game time ahead of their SAFF Championships campaign, which takes place next month.
Incidentally, the Indian football team was aiming to face-off higher-ranked middle-eastern opponents as a dress rehearsal to the continental meet in October, but Covid-19 restrictions never allowed the plans to come to fruition. It was their next-door neighbours that did arrange for the occasion, albeit for mutual needs. With national coach Igor Stimac preparing for steeper challenges, the Nepal assignment seemed an easy hurdle.
Overall, the hype around Indian football and big-talks of them progressing slowly to an elite level in Asian football has been doing rounds for the past couple of years. But, if results are the primary gauging tool for development, the tale carries a different narrative.
Let’s take the example of the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers – where India was pitted alongside two lower-ranked teams – Bangladesh and Afghanistan, matches in which the Indians were supposed to fetch points. Out of the four matches (home and away), India managed to win only one and split points in the rest of the fixtures. With all the investments and exposure thrown into the system, the returns are not even average, I’m afraid we're still stuck in the bottom layers.
The lack of scoring prowess was clearly visible in the first game against Nepal, with Sunil Chhetri trying hard to get his team over the line with his individual brilliance. However, the game-building process lacked mettle, while the defence was sloppy. It was a mishap between goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and defender Chinglensana Singh that allowed Anjan Bista to take a shocking lead. India did wake up from slumber, but they were struggling to get back the rhythm.
It was only at the stroke of the hour mark that a long ranger from Sunil Chhetri, which was saved by the custodian, rolled back into play, while Anirudh Thapa tapped it in from handshaking distance of the target. The Blue Tigers did put up a better show in the second game, creating a lot of openings for themselves in the first period, but failed to get past the goalie. Even though Farukh Choudhary netted the first goal in the 62nd minute, Nepal stepped up the pedal even further following that.
The hosts were also subject to a lot of silly errors. They bottled a couple of golden opportunities in the second half, which could have changed the complexion of the match entirely. Sunil Chhetri’s 80th-minute goal did seal the deal for India, but they were bulldozed till the dying seconds of the game. Nepal gave their rivals a real run for their money, also pulling one back in the 87th minute of the game, by virtue of a long-ranger from Tej Tamang.
What struck disappointing was the manner in which India escaped to victory, failing to register a convincing one. On paper, India does remain unbeaten in the tour, but, just edging past the team which is loitering in the bottom half of the FIFA rankings, doesn’t paint a favourable picture. India is arguably the best team in the South Asian region (SAFF), but if we have shown an improvement in the quality of football, it must reflect in the result. In this case, dominating wins (big margin wins) over known opponents is the benchmark India needs to aim for.
Igor Stimac might be heaping praise on his wards, but deep down, even he knows, we are progressing at a snail’s pace. For now, the focus will shift entirely to the 2021 SAFF Championships in the Maldives, which begins on October 1. It won’t be surprising at all if India wins the tournament for the eighth time, but what really matters is the way the team goes about its business. For the highest-ranked team in the competition, they should play like one.
Having already been dealt with heavy criticism for his conservative style of play, it’s now or never the Croat manager, who was given a new lease of life after the 2022 World Cup qualifiers. The SAFF Championships and the 2023 Asian Qualifiers might well be the real acid-test for the 1998 World Cupper to prove himself or succumb to it.