Asian Cup 2019: India abandon initial positivity and pay with elimination

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From being on the verge of securing a vital point with an embattled display, to seeing their dreams evaporate before their eyes, the final minutes at the Al Sharjah Stadium was an emotional rollercoaster for the Indian team and their fans.

Stephen Constantine’s troops came within a whisker of securing a memorable round of 16 berth at Asian Cup 2019 but couldn’t quite claw their way over the finish line.

With the manager persisting with his policy of rotating the armband, central midfielder Pronay Halder was handed his first shot at the national team captaincy. In a cruel twist of fate, it was the 25-year-old who ended up conceding the all-important penalty in the dying embers of the game to hand Bahrain the advantage.

Halder’s clumsy challenge on Hamad Al Shamsan gave Jamal Rashed the opportunity from 12 yards out and he made no mistake. Meanwhile, Thailand’s draw against host nation UAE meant India finished bottom of Group A.

In truth, Bahrain deserved to win. They had no choice but to attack India in order to keep their Asian Cup dream alive and they did just that, gradually breaking down their stubborn resistance.

India, were passive to say the least even if Constantine was adamant ahead of this fixture that they wouldn’t just play for the draw.

“We always play to win. I know they are a quality team. But we also have our quality. And we don’t know how to play for a draw. We will obviously play for three points,” he said.

Let’s not kid ourselves though, India were always going to put the result first. They conceded a whopping 22 shots and responded with just three of their own.

Their strategy was made evident in the only change to the starting line-up from the first two games. The creativity, short passing and vibrancy of young Anirudh Thapa was replaced in midfield by the experience of the defensive-minded Rowllin Borges.

Defending their lines.

Defending their lines.

Two banks of four, full-backs don’t venture past the halfway line, strikers fall back and chase down what you can – the orders were simple from Constantine. It’s the kind of game plan Indian fans would’ve come to expect from their team – until this tournament, which gave them audacity to hope for more.

The onus was on Bahrain to create opportunities and win the game and India were content to sit off them, offering little going forward with Sunil Chhetri – whose name has repeatedly featured in the same breath as Lionel Messi over the last week – barely involved.

Even in the closing stages when opportunities to pick Bahrain off on the break were plentiful, the Indians chose to check back, hold on to the ball and go down cheaply in search of free-kicks to disrupt the tempo of the encounter and afford their defence some respite.

You could argue that they earned the right to hold on to their advantage with a 4-1 win over Thailand in their opener before a valiant effort against UAE – despite ending in defeat – furthered their cause.

However, on the continental stage with so many eyeballs on them, here was an opportunity to present Indian football in a different light. You can drudge up the ol’ “football is the new cricket in India” line all you want but how you play the game is what matters.

They abandoned the aggressive, positive approach that was adopted in their first two games and paid the price.

After roaring into the competition and capturing the imagination of their fans and neutrals alike, the Blue Tigers have gone out with a whimper.

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