India started their AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers campaign on a winning note, as they managed to scrape past a Chinese Taipei side, 2-1.
While many expected the Blue Tigers to beat their 171st ranked opponents, for most of the second half, it looked like India would be held to a draw. That would have been a disastrous result for Wim Koevermans’ side. Especially since Myanmar showed with a 5-0 thumping of Guam, that they meant business in the tournament, held at their own backyard.
The Indian side dominated the proceedings, enjoying healthy possession, a higher count of shots on target, corners and creating more chances in general, but until Robin Singh’s timely intervention, it looked highly probable that Chiang Mu-Tsai’s side would go away with a surprising point.
And a draw would have been hugely damaging to both, the chances of India making the 2014 main edition, as well as to the morale of the squad, which had already taken a beating at the hands of Palestine.
Robin Singh late header helped India grab all three points...
Hence, more than joy, the final score was greeted with relief by both, the Indian staff and the fans.
The starting eleven itself raised some questions over the balance of the squad. While it was a good decision to draft Gurjinder Kumar at left-back, leaving out Syed Rahim Nabi altogether was a perplexing move.
The Mohun Bagan player had been tried often in the training camp on the right-wing. With Francis Fernandes having just recovered from his injury, it would perhaps have been ideal to play Nabi out there, especially with the experience and quality he brings along, wherever he plays.
Another issue was with the persistence with the 4-4-1-1 formation, against a side that was always going to sit back and soak-in the pressure. While Jewel Raja, who started behind Sunil Chhetri, did get the opening goal, it might perhaps have been wiser to start the Mohun Bagan midfielder, or even Lalkamal Bhowmick, in central midfield, and do away with the double defensive pivot of Mehtab Hussain and Lenny Rodrigues.
Not only would it have provided further bite in midfield going forward, it would have also allowed a striker in the shape of Robin Singh or perhaps Jeje Lalpekhlua, to slot in, and play alongside Sunil Chhetri, giving the Taipei defense more to think about.
Wim Koevermans though, should be credited for realizing where the problem was, and throwing in both, Nabi and Robin Singh, in the second half.
However not always will such a throw of the dice work in his favour, and starting with another striker alongside Chhetri, with Nabi on the right-wing, will definitely be the right decision against Guam, who will also look to hit India on the counter-attack like Taipei.
Plenty to ponder over, for Wim Koevermans...
And that must also worry Koevermans, as even with a double defensive pivot, they were not able to thwart the opposition’s counter-attacks, with Subrata Paul pulling off atleast 3 good saves, to keep India in the game.
In the post-match conference, the Dutchman seemed quite perturbed by his team conceding from a corner, and so he should be. Especially since in attack, a Gurjinder header apart, India never looked threatening from their own set-pieces, wasting close to 13 corners that came their way. This vulnerability in the air might be ruthlessly exploited by other opponents.
All of these factors, combined with the fact that India had comfortably beaten the same opposition 3-0, less than two years back, meant that the three points were greeted more as a respite than a step forward by the Indian team faithful.
However for Koevermans, it is still a position of strength to be in, as he has lost no ground to their biggest group rivals Myanmar, though they did get a good goal difference boost, with a 5-0 win over Guam.
In order to neutralize that, he has to go into the game against Guam with a more positive outlook from the off, and that would involve starting with two strikers upfront, with Robin Singh being a good foil for Sunil Chhetri to play off, and the East Bengal striker has strengthened his own case by his late winner against Taipei.
Giving Nabi and perhaps even Bhowmick a start from the off might also help India add more teeth to their attack, while letting the Indian coach check some more of his players in action, before the big game against Myanmar on 6th of March, which might in all probability, decide the fate of both the sides.
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