If India were hoping for a sterner test of their title credentials ahead of the SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) Championship semi-final, they did not get it against the Maldives on Sunday in their final group match.
Already assured of progression to the semi-final before Sunday’s clash at the Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka, Stephen Constantine and his U23’s put in a clinical display to take the top spot in the group.
They can expect to be put through a much tougher test when they take on arch-rivals Pakistan in the semi-final clash given how insipid and tame Maldives’ performance was on the night on Sunday.
Barely did Petar Segrt's men threaten the Indian defence in the 90 minutes and the little threat they did pose came through the umpteen set pieces they were gifted by the Blue Tigers.
If there is one criticism to be aimed at India’s display on the night then it is at the countless set-pieces, especially corners, they gifted to the opposition. Although Maldives failed to make of their opportunities with the dead ball, a better team could have hurt India with them. Subhasish Bose, who started in the centre of defence instead of left back, was particularly shaky in dealing with the set-piece threat.
Otherwise, there were a few positives which Constantine and his youngsters can take to the knock-out ties. The biggest of them perhaps was Nikhil Poojary’s display on the right flank.
The young winger was a livewire throughout the 90 minutes and his maiden goal for the Indian senior team was just reward for his tireless performance. That it came in his first competitive fixture since sustaining an ACL injury in October last year is extremely heartening and will give the now FC Pune City winger a big boost going forward. It will also give some food for thought to Constantine with respect to next year’s AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Asian Cup in the UAE.
The 23-year-old was the greater threat on the night than Lallianzuala Chhangte on the left flank and his darting run down the centre for India’s first goal showed great intelligence and awareness on his part.
Another bright spark in India’s comfortable win was the display of Anirudh Thapa in midfield. The youngster was given the captain’s armband for the first time and he justified that gesture with another assured performance in the middle of the park. The 20-year-old continues to show increasing maturity for his age and his composure and confidence on the ball gave license to the Indian attackers to bomb forward. Alongside him, Delhi Dynamos’ midfielder Vinit Rai looked the part as well as he kept things simple by keeping the ball moving.
Manvir Singh’s goal was a well taken one too and the FC Goa winger showed the quality he can bring to the table with some clever runs behind the Maldives defence.
India were never really required to step out of second gear on the night and two flashes of brilliance were enough to topple the tepid Maldives but they can expect things to get much spicier when they take on Pakistan for the first time since their 1-0 win over the arch-rivals in 2013.