Ahmedabad: On another day India's 1-1 draw against Syria would have at best triggered a subdued reaction. After all, the result meant India ended winless in a home tournament. Not the ideal preparation camp for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. But what followed the final whistle was a deafening roar from a jubilant crowd. They had finally seen what they had wanted to see " intent from the Indian footballers. And the happiness wasn't restricted to the audience. Coach Igor Stimac could hardly hide his grin as he hugged players with Jurgen Klopp-ish energy. Finally, there was an aura of positivity in the Indian camp. And the match was indeed a testimony to the changing dynamics of Indian football " a 5000+ crowd on a working day in Ahmedabad cheering the sport as a new breed of footballers executed a game-plan to perfection by playing attractive football.
The best outcome from the match, apart from the compact structure that the team was able to keep for most of 90 minutes, was perhaps the starting XI. On the virtue of what we've witnessed since the beginning of the Stimac era, this is the best set of players he has at his disposal and this is most likely to be how India will line up in the future.
A midfield trio of Sahal Abdul Samad, Anirudh Thapa and Amarjit Singh has the potential to be the backbone of the Indian side. Sahal's deftness up front and his vision to unlock the defence coupled with Amarjit's doggedness and Thapa's footballing mind seems to be India's long-term future, while it will be hard to displace Udanta Singh or Lallianzuala Chhangte from this Indian side. But while the young impressed, it was the grand old that once again guided the ship for India, as Sunil Chhetri put in another performance that defied the common understanding of 'ageing'.
A turn to start it all
A move in the 50th minute of the match summed up India's new style of play and Chhetri's importance. India's captain controlled a throw from Pritam Kotal with his feet, rolled it back to the full-back, who hit a first-time pass to Udanta Singh. The winger then lifted the ball up for Thapa, who was 10 yards away from him, tightly marked by the Syrian midfielders. But Thapa showed a presence of mind to head it down to Sahal, who dribbled past the Syrian defenders to play a short pass to Chhetri. The Bengaluru FC forward, who had clearly been Syrian defenders' main target for the match, drew both Mohammed Fares Al Arnaout and Mohamed Anaz towards him, evaded their tackles and played a reverse pass to Udanta Singh who had made a dash into the space left vacant by the out-of-position defender. One minute of brilliance that started and ended with Chhetri. All clockwork " each person contributing to an overall plan.
The move didn't produce a goal but it had shaken Syria. Here was a team that had shipped in nine goals in two matches playing with the swagger of a Champions League side. India scored two minutes after the goal " Al Arnaout, the same defender Chhetri outfoxed, made an uncharacteristic mistake to concede a cheap corner and young Narender Gahlot scored from the resultant kick.
Gahlot, a surprise addition in the team, after injuries to first-choice centre-backs, has had the strangest welcome to international football. He was made the scapegoat in India's horror show against Tajikistan in the tournament opener where India conceded five, benched for the second match, and brought back into the main XI against Syria, scored a thumping header for the goal and was declared the man of the match.
If nothing, the performance shows the 18-year-old's mental strength to shake away the criticism and answer his doubters with a near-flawless performance in what was an unconventional backline for India. Mandar Rao Dessai was once again picked as a left-back ahead of Subhasish Bose and Jerry Lalrinzuala while Rahul Bheke got to play the role of a central defender. When Sandesh Jhingan regains fitness it will be interesting to see who's slot he will occupy, with Bheke likely to be moved to his favoured right-back position at the expense of Pritam Kotal.
Job not done
What followed after India's goal was further testimony to Chhetri's importance in the team. As his teammates surrounded an emotional Gahlot in celebration, the captain walked to the centre-line and called on his troops to realign. The battle was far from over and Chhetri knew he had to keep his young side on their toes, ready for a Syrian onslaught.
War torn? Yes. Love for football still in tact? Yes, Sir!
" ´´¾µ½´ª´¨µ´¤µ / KalPanthu (@KalPanthu) July 16, 2019
Syria, cheered on by a group of 60-odd traveling supporters, had the bigger need to win. A victory would have given them a chance to play in the final and not so surprisingly they increased their intensity in attack. India held firm, with Amarjit and Thapa forming a protective layer in front of the defence, but a substitution worked against the home side. Jerry's introduction for Mandar Desai " a step to improve the defence " backfired for the Blue Tigers as the substitute gave away a penalty which Syria captain Firas Alkhatib scored.
Jerry was poor till the end and was bailed out multiple times by Chhangte who took a more defensive position towards the closing stages. The defence continues to be a worry for India. Mandar Desai brings a lot to the attack but is below par when it comes to the defending. Similarly, Kotal doesn't offer the distribution or strength required from a full-back. Barring the Durand Cup, there will not be a lot of football being played before the World Cup Qualifiers which means finding solutions will also be a tough task for the coaching staff.
Welcome to the Indian team, Amarjit
Not so surprisingly, Chhetri's influence didn't stop after the 90 minutes. His decision to let young Amarjit Singh, former India Under- 17 captain and someone with the potential to be a leader in the future, lead the post-match Viking chant of the Blue Pilgrims was a masterstroke by the forward. Amarjit will be needed at his very best when India face their opponents in the World Cup qualifiers and Chhetri's decision to acknowledge the ever-growing influence of the young man will act as a big boost of confidence.
It also gives out a positive vibe to the rest of the team and the fans after a disastrous Intercontinental Cup. With the forward line and midfield looking set for the Indian team, and multiple back-up options emerging in the defensive line, the competition didn't turn out all too badly for the Indians in the end. The challenge will now be to prepare the solutions, work on the positives and be ready for the big qualifying campaign that will start in September.