AFC Asian Cup 2019: Stephen Constantine's 'chosen ones' sparkle to help silence Indian manager's detractors

Kaushal Shukla
Having identified the players of his choice, Stephen Constantine has stuck with them through thick and thin. The likes of Narzary, Jeje, Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika weren’t in the best of forms coming into the tournament

0-2, 0-2, 0-0, 0-3, 0-4, 2-5, 1-4. India's results at the AFC Asian Cup since their previous victory in the competition, way back in 1964, make for bad reading. There was little reason for Indians to believe their 2019 adventure in UAE would yield drastically different results.

The recent rise in FIFA rankings aided by a handful of positive results did raise a degree of optimism, but India had work to do to shed its underdog tag.

The build-up to the competition was dominated by the I-League telecast controversy. Many questioned the All India Football Federation's (AIFF) will to safeguard the interest of what is the nation's primary football league. As the debate died down, coach Stephen Constantine had to bear the wrath of the Indian football faithful who felt the Indian coach was too rigid in his team selection and didn't pick players based on form and merit.

Reports of a possible rift between Constantine and captain Sunil Chhetri had been floating for months with stories of the AIFF unwilling to extend Constantine's contract beyond the Asian Cup also doing rounds.

In the context, India's 4-1 victory over Thailand in the opening game of the AFC Asian Cup in Abu Dhabi was one big pleasant surprise. Not just the score-line, but also the result.

The word surprise is key. India have been slow starters under Constantine, but against Thailand on Sunday, the Blue Tigers were quick out of the box. They had a simple game plan and that was to press Thailand high up the field and disrupt their passing game.

India did a fine job and had Thailand slightly rattled at the start of the game. Their intensity proved to be too much for the Thai players who couldn't establish a foothold in the game, which they would've expected to do against a technically inferior India.

"In the first 30 minutes we saw, if we allow them to pass, they'll pass for 180 minutes and we can't even touch the ball. So the message was clear, go out and be brave. Because if you want to press high, you need to be brave. Everyone comes up and that opens space behind you. But the boys took to the challenge and left the back to Gurpreet. So unless we heard him yelling, we didn't look back," Chhetri told reporters in Abu Dhabi after the game.

"So, when you press them high, it's no longer the same. Then they are playing our game. And we are dominant there," he added.

The likes of Halicharan Narzary, Udanta Singh and Ashique Kuruniyan were instrumental in initiating India's press and prevented Thailand from building up from the back. Behind them, the industrious Anirudh Thapa and Pranoy Halder worked hard to smother any pass that tried to pierce the Indian midfield.

India's early endeavours earned them a deserved lead in the 27th minute, but a Thai equalizer eight minutes later deflated Indian spirits. At the interval, it appeared that India had surrendered the initiative to Thailand, but the Blue Tigers regained their menacing intensity after scoring again within a minute of the restart.

"I think everyone spoke (at halftime). Sandesh said a few things, Chhetri bhai ensured that we were up for the task. We have been working towards this for the last four years and didn't want to let this slip. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for most of us. We don't know if we'll be around the next time India plays the Asian Cup, so we wanted to ensure that we gave everything," centre-back Anas Edathodika who forged a solid partnership with Sandesh Jhingan at the back told reporters after the game.

Thailand had 65% of possession but India's pressing and quick closing down meant it counted for little. There was little quality and threat in Thailand's possession in the second half to cause India any worry.

Thailand had just one shot on target in the entire second half and that came in stoppage time. It was a wild drive from outside the box that barely worried Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in goal.

Apart from the four goals India scored, they can take special pride from the fact that they didn't concede a single shot on target against Thailand from open play inside their penalty area in the entire game. This is an indicator of how well India executed Constantine's game plan and thwarted the Thai threat.

The gaffer's decision to throw young Ashique Kuriniyan straight into the mix paid dividends as the forward from Kerala made darting runs in between defenders and held up the ball well. He was the glue in the Indian attack, who were able to make the most of the times they regained possession.

The Englishman didn't draw out a tactical masterclass to stop Thailand, he just maximized the strengths of his players to deliver this positive outcome.

"We are not a very technical team. We rely heavily on our fighting spirit and unity. Secondly, we are fit, hardworking players. If a team is better than us, dominates us and beats us, then fair play to them, but we won't let anyone beat us in effort and determination," Chhetri said after the game.

The captain echoed the principle on which Constantine has been picking his side, namely, work rate. "I don't do anything by accident. I can't afford to. I know many times there have been debates over the players I have selected or dropped, but the most important thing for us is the work rate," Constantine had stressed on his point in a press conference after India's win in the Continental Cup final in June.

Having identified the players of his choice, he has stuck with them through thick and thin. The likes of Narzary, Jeje, Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika weren't in the best of forms coming into the tournament. Some of the players had seen little action due to being out of favour at their respective clubs, but Constantine stayed true to his choice, despite a heavy backlash back home.

On Sunday, Constantine's 'chosen ones' repaid his immense faith by delivering an equally immense result for him. The performance epitomized Constantine's vision he had when he began assembling the group.

After completing four years as head coach of the Indian national team Stephen Constantine has taken India up in the FIFA rankings, palpably improved the team and its players and has a golden opportunity to surpass the target set to him by taking the team to the knockout stages of the Asian Cup for the first time in their history.

Constantine's methods will have detractors, but the Indian coach has done enough to get much more respect and love than what he receives. His football has proven to be effective in the last four years and on Sunday it was beautiful too. It may finally be time for India to applaud its coach and have faith in his ways.

Also See: AFC Asian Cup 2019: Brief profiles of India's 23-member squad ahead of first match against Thailand

AFC Asian Cup 2019: Indian captain Sunil Chhetri 'always knows where I am' on the pitch, says forward Jeje Lalpekhlua

AFC Asian Cup 2019: Sunil Chhetri says win against Thailand best match of his international career

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