The Indian football team will be all set to play for their pride when they take on Syria in the final group stage match of the Intercontinental Cup in Ahmedabad. The host nation's fate were sealed when DPR Korea produced their best performance of the tournament to defeat Tajikistan 1-0 on Monday.
Judging by the performances so far at the TransStadia, it would be foolish to assume India will have it easy against Syria in the third and final game of the tournament. The Syrians were, in fact, pre-tournament favourites along with India to win the second edition of the international competition.
What has been promising for India has been their new head coach Igor Stimac's insistence on trying out all the players before finding his best-suited XI. Sadly for the Croatian, key injuries to players like Ashique Kuruniyan, Raynier Fernandes and Anas Edathodika have made it difficult for him to find the right balance in the team as they prepare themselves for the World Cup qualifiers which begin in September.
Igor Stimac's plan B
From the four matches he has coached so far, it is clear that Stimac wants his side to develop two plans. His plan A is entertaining " an attack-minded approach pivoting around the central midfield brilliance from the likes of Anirudh Thapa and Sahal Abdul Samad. While the strategy got exposed by a physically dominating and disciplined Tajikistan in the opener, the players showed enough to suggest that India can adopt this possession-based approach.
Against DPR Korea, much like against Thailand in the second match at the King's Cup, Stimac gave his second choice team a chance to impress. But unlike in Thailand, where India opted for a cautious approach, starting four central midfielders (Sahal, Amarjit Singh, Raynier Fernandes, and Vinit Rai), this was a top-heavy Indian team with three strikers " Sunil Chhetri, Manvir Singh and Jobby Justin " in the team.
The plan was quite clear " exploit North Korea's leaky defence which had shipped in five goals against Syria in their opening match of the tournament. And the coaching staff had identified a weakness they wanted to expose " a lack of physical presence in Korea's left wing. Manvir, even though a central striker, had played on the right for his club FC Goa in recent times, and it was clear from the onset that India would look to play from right with goalkeeper Amrinder Singh aiming all his kicks towards the FC Goa man, while Chhetri and Pritam Kotal tried to win the second balls.
DPR Korea's decision to bring in Pak Myong Song in the first half was a clear indication of the team wanting to tighten things up in the left flank. Unfortunately for India, the plan didn't work out as Manvir struggled in the role while Kotal's ventures up forward exposed gaping holes for North Korea to exploit.
The match showed how India were unprepared against a side that could execute high-intensity pressing and highlighted the need to develop an alternative approach against superior teams. Syria will be looking to expose this apparent weakness in the Indian squad on Tuesday and it will be interesting to see how Stimac would choose his side. For the visitors, the match offers a chance to make it to the final owing to their superior goal difference, and players will be charged up for the encounter.
The other side of a positive
Considering the era of PR-driven news we find ourselves in, it was not entirely surprising to see India's horrendous loss against the Koreans get a positive spin-off. Truth be told, India were woeful in both halves, regardless of what the fans and the association would like you to believe. A tournament with no strict rules on the number of substitutions in the match allowed Stimac to somewhat salvage the result by bringing on his attacking players but this was a second string North Korea side playing in second gear.
It is commendable that Stimac has not yet yielded to the pressure of winning, instead of using the matches to get out his best side, but in the grand scheme of things the throw-caution-to-wind approach has ensured that his match-starved set of players will be deprived of one game because the tournament doesn't have a losers' final.
It is a crucial loss considering how Stimac could have given his best XI two games to see how well his players gel together. Departing for club duties with a team in disarray wouldn't be ideal but it looks that will be the case. The constant changes also do not bode well for the Indian team which has relied on the players' camaraderie to bail them out in recent times. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is a big figure in the team, just like Udanta Singh, and India will need these players to feel part of this new-look team as soon as possible. One can only hope Stimac opts for his favoured side against Syria so that the team would have played at least one competitive match together before the qualifiers.
For Stimac or Technical Director Isac Doru, there are no short-term solutions available for the team's problems. The matches provided a quick reality check for the Indian team; compared to elite sides across Asia the Indian team's passing is slow, decision making poor, while also not looking at the part when it comes to the physicality.
The Intercontinental Cup helped expose some of the flaws in this Indian team that had been kept in check by some robust management of the previous coach Stephen Constantine who focused on a defence-first approach.
What happened in the tournament was inevitable but the hope is that the management can address these issues before the real test begins later this year. It's strange what form can do to even the best of players and it will be important for the Blue Tigers to sign off with a win.