When the starting line-ups for India's friendly away to Cambodia on Wednesday were announced, many were intrigued. As many as four forwards featured in the lineup with CK Vineeth, Sunil Chhetri, young Daniel Lalhlimpuia and Robin Singh. Naturally, most anticipated an attacking game from India against their lowly opponents who were ranked 173rd in the world, a massive 41 rungs below The Blue Tigers .
What unfolded in the first half was indeed a display of crisp passing, intelligent movement and attacking verve. But not from the visitors as expected but from the home team whose last International game was a 7-2 drubbing at the hands of Saudi Arabia. The Indian midfield hardly saw the ball in the initial 15 minutes with Cambodia's profligacy in front of goal being the only factor behind the scores remaining level.
Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Rowllin Borges looked all at sea against the agile and fast Cambodian players, who were actually adapting to a new system and a new coach. The 3-4-3 that Leonardo Vitorino implemented seemed to be complimenting his players very well and they passed the ball well around the Indian players who looked laboured, slow and rusty.
Chan Vathanaka and Thierry Chantha Bin should have found the net early on for the home team while at the other end, Pritam Kotal's crosses from the right wing did cause a few hassles in the Cambodian penalty box but the problem was that such moments came very sparingly in the first half.
Constantine's decision to start with players who were out of form or have not featured much in the ongoing I-League also contributed to the rusty start. Arnab Mondal & Fulganco Cardozo have been injured for a while and Eugeneson Lyngdoh and CK Vineeth have not been playing on top of their game lately. Moreover, Rowllin Borges has not been a regular starter for East Bengal with Mehtab Hossain the first choice in midfield for The Red and Golds. Whether Constantine regrets the decision to let go of Issac Vanlalsawma, who has been in scintillating form in the I-League, is anyone's guess!
Not surprisingly, CK Vineeth was hauled off midway through the half and Jackichand Singh came in, though it did not really improve India's performance. As such, India's opener was surprising and came courtesy of a howler from Cambodian custodian Um Sereyroth, leaving Chhetri to tap in from three yards. But the home team equalised immediately with a flowing move that exposed the Indian defence, who were at sixes and sevens. Arnab Mondal and Anas Edathodika had trouble with their communication while Kotal was easily caught out often by Prak Mony Udom. Fulganco Cardozo, at left-back, should have conceded a penalty when he tripped Vathanaka inside the area as India huffed and puffed their way to half-time.
Stephen Constantine - We were a bit casual in the first half
As expected, Constantine took out Daniel and Mondal and sent on Sandesh Jhingan and Jeje Lalpekhlua. The two substitutes sent India up 3-1 within ten minutes of the restart but it was the better pressing displayed by India's frontmen which resulted in the second-half renaissance. Chhetri, Jeje and Jackichand pressed high up to prevent Cambodia from playing out from the back, forcing them to boot the ball up which helped Eugeneson and Borges to recover possession. But this period of ascendancy did not last long. In fact, it was more a 15-minute renaissance that won the game for India than a second-half one.
Once Chan Vathanaka got Cambodia back into the game with a long-ranger just past the hour mark, Cambodia again found their attacking verve. Lyngdoh, who was starting to play well was taken off for Mohammed Rafique and India acceded the control they had. The one explanation to that bizarre move from Constantine could be that he was trying out various options before the all-important game against Myanmar on March 28.
The urgency with which India stopped Cambodia playing out from the back went missing as the game went on. As Constantine gave Udanta Singh and Milan Singh a run out, Cambodia kept on probing the Indian defence with Gurpreet twice forced to come off his line and avert danger.
While the win would have sent relief flooding through Stephen Constantine, it also serves a wake-up call to the Englishman. Though the 54-year-old opined that his team has not trained together since September, it has to be acknowledged that their Vitorino had taken over the Cambodians only three weeks or so ago. Furthermore, the Cambodian team were mostly comprised of U-23 players and their inexperience serves to highlight how much India has to improve.
It is highly likely that Constantine will not start with the same set of players as today against Myanmar in the opening game in Group A of the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers. The Blue Tigers have a huge opportunity to qualify for the continent's showpiece tournament but have to shed the complacency that marred their start in the Cambodia game because a slow start on March 28th will have consequences, unlike in this game.