For the large majority of India's 2019 AFC Asian Cup group match against hosts UAE, Stephen Constantine's team were in control and had restricted their opponents to long distance efforts. And yet, the match ended in a defeat for India and it was a hard pill to swallow for the supporters.
The chances India created, the ones they could and should have scored tempt the supporters to ask 'what if?' 'If' is a big word in any sport. It is imperative that the same does not happen against Bahrain if India are to qualify for the next round.
After the game, Constantine said, "I have 23 bitterly disappointed boys and you couldn’t say that a few years ago. We would have come here, lost 2-0 and been quite happy. They are bitterly disappointed; they know that we could have taken something from this game. We have another game and we look forward to that, hope that we can convert the chances we make.”
India were not the team that barely held on against waves of UAE attacks but far from it. They were the team that pressed UAE right from the first minute, with Constantine choosing to set up his defensive line higher than how many expected it to be. They forced the hosts into errors and created plenty of chances to score. But they simply failed to convert.
India were asking the right questions in the first-half and certain periods of play reminded the world of the potential the team has. The forwards in the starting lineup both had chances in the attacking third In the second half, India struck the post twice and continued to create chances on the counter.
The fact that India did not defend deep and play 'hopeful' football against the highest-ranked team in Group A adds to the frustration. Only if the team had clinical strikers in front of goal. But they already have!
In Sunil Chhetri and Jeje Lalpelkhlua, India have two celebrated forwards who have performed at the highest level for several years and were part of the national team set-up even before Constantine took charge. The only thing missing in India's attack was the danger that is usually caused by these two leaders in the attacking third. Interestingly, the duo completed just one pass between them against UAE and Jeje alone made just 14 passes since coming on.
Jeje scored after coming off the bench against Thailand and he was handed 45 minutes to bring India back into the game. Chhetri grabbed a brace and was influential in the 4-1 win against the War Elephants but these two players, being two of the most experienced players in the team, were unable to make the desired impact in the match against UAE.
Chhetri headed Anirudh Thapa's cross straight at the goalie from handshaking distance in the first half and Jeje looked to be struggling to adapt to the tempo of the game and often slowed the attacks down since coming on.
Fine margins cost India the game as the strikers failed to convert one chance after another. Strikers will always be judged for the goals they score and that will be the case again in India's journey in UAE.
Against Bahrain, with India's knockout hopes well and truly alive, the strikers need to step up. Jeje and Chhetri have proved time and again that they can be crucial game-changers and India need such defining moments to script history going into their final group game. It is certainly one that the Blue Tigers stand a chance to win.