With two wins in two games, it looked like the Wim Koevermans era had made a smooth beginning. With just a win needed against Nepal, who had looked out of their depth in the tournament so far, to reach the final, there was almost an air of complacency in the build-up to the game, as the talk focused on how many goals India could score against the Gorkhalis and the result almost seemed a by-gone conclusion.
However, by the time the game ended, with the Blue Tigers not only unable to break past a resilient Nepal defense but also at times being out-played by their opponents on a severely waterlogged pitch, with the conditions only worsening as the match continued.
While a disappointing result, it should just be considered as another day of learning in the unique school of Indian football for Wim Koevermans.
Salgaocar SC’s coach Karim Bencherifa, one of the most successful foreign coaches in India, who was offered the Indian coach’s position last year, before he decided to honour his deal with the Goan club, in a recent interview, a piece that the Dutchman would have done well to go through, pointed out how the choice of playing style in India, must also be dependent on the personnel as well as turf conditions.
This is a lesson that Koevermans will have learned during the game against Nepal. With the ground conditions highlighting why the nation is ranked 168th in the world, the Euro 1988 winner’s tactics of keeping the ball on the ground and relying on a 'pass-and-move' tactic failed, as his midfield, especially Lenny Rodrigues, failed to come to terms with the conditions.
It is not always a smooth sailing for a team in transition...
With Sunil Chhetri being the lone man forward until half-time, and the midfield failing to string a few passes together, they predictably resorted to thumping the ball forward, something that played right into the hands of the Gorkhalis, who were able to deal with the lone striker upfront easily and themselves resorted to direct tactics, moving the ball from defense to attack quickly.
In the end, the lack of quality forwards meant Krishna Thapa’s men were unable to make this superiority count on the score-sheet, but it was clear that India’s tactics were not working in these conditions.
The arrival of Robin Singh saw India do better in the second half, with Jewel Raja also coming on later to act some direct dribbling and running ability into the side, making the Blue Tigers look a more potent outfit.
The impact of these two players, who have the attributes to be successful in such conditions, will not have been missed by a tactician of the quality of Koevermans, and while his intentions of making the national team play a brand of football more pleasing to the eye are laudable, he will do well to learn from the disappointment and adapt his gameplan according to the plight of the pitch.
Having players who can play a 'pass-and-move' style are vital, but so is a turf fit enough to implement such a tactic, which unfortunately a country as vast as India cannot yet promise throughout the year.
While the draw certainly complicates India’s path to the final, their destiny still lies in their hands, which should be a re-assuring fact for Koevermans as well as the followers of Indian football.
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