When Stephen Constantine and his men return to their team hotel tonight, one can imagine that there would be more a feeling of relief rather than satisfaction after their hard-fought 2-1 victory over a team ranked 63 places below them in the FIFA rankings.
The Blue Tigers came into the opening match of the Tri-nation series at the Mumbai Football Arena knowing that the results of the tournament would have no bearing on their rankings. Hence, it was touted as a good opportunity for Constantine’s men to test their squad strength.
After a not-so-encouraging ninety minutes, goals from Robin Singh and Balwant Singh gave India a come-from-behind victory over the African opponents who had led through Mervyn Jocelyn's early strike.
Star striker Sunil Chettri and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh were missing due to their involvement in the AFC Cup qualifiers with Bengaluru FC, thus providing an opportunity for the fringe players to stake their claim for a starting spot.
The absence of the Bengaluru players meant Robin Singh was given the mantle of leading the line while veteran custodian Subrata Paul was given a rare outing between the sticks.
The Men in Blue have developed a notorious habit of starting slowly in their recent games and it was no different at Mumbai as it was Francisco Filho’s men who started the game on the front foot. There seemed to be no urgency or cohesiveness between the Indian players.
Unsurprisingly, the backline was duly punished in the 15th minute when Mervyn Jocelyn sent in a deflected strike past Paul after being given all the room in the world at the edge of the box. The early setback did nothing to lull the Indian players put of their coma as they struggled to piece together three passes in a row throughout the half.
India’s equalizer came through their target man up-front in Robin Singh. All throughout the first half, the striker had been chasing shadows as hopeful long-ball punts were sprayed towards him by the midfield and defense.
India’s old bane of playing hopeful long balls into the striker reared its ugly head once again, despite the inferior stature of their opponents. Tellingly, its inefficiency was proven when Singh’s equalizer came about after being sent through on goal from a Rowllin Borges through-ball. One might have thought this would spark a change in the Indian team to play more on the ground but the long balls kept raining all-night long along with the Mumbai monsoon.
With two wingers in the side in the form of Jackichand Singh and Halicharan Nazary, much of the play was expected to flow through the right and left channels. Unfortunately, there seemed to be a dearth of movement on either flank in the first-half with no crosses of note coming in for the two strikers.
Nazary and Jackichand were both more involved in defensive duties rather than being the attacking outlet for the team. With a big unit in the form of Robin Singh leading the attack, some crosses into his path rather than the long-balls would have been more effective.
The lack of width could be attributed to the failure of winning the midfield battle initially as Eugene Lyngdoh struggled to impose himself on the game and was brushed aside more often than not by his counterparts from the visiting team. The failure to win the midfield battle meant the wingers in the side had to come inwards to provide more support leaving the flanks empty and center of the field congested.
It is no wonder then that most of the play from either side was scratchy from the onset. While Borges did get stuck in and played some good balls, the midfield failed to dominate the visitors for the majority of the game and this only changed with the introduction of Mohammad Rafique for Lyngdoh midway through the second-half.
Rafique was a delight on a rainy day and he brought a sense of urgency which was sorely lacking in the first-half. He was willing to take on the opposition with his dribbling ability and provide some impetus to a withering attack. The former Kerala Blasters man was everywhere during his time on the pitch completing multiple take-downs. His partnership with Borges in midfield allowed India to finally show some sense of domination during that particular phase of play as more chances were created.
Striker Balwant Singh, who last played for India in the AFC Challenge Cup in 2010, replaced Robin Singh after the interval and he immediately caused havoc in the Mauritius defense. The 30-year-old was a live wire during the second-half as India pushed forward for the winner.
The Mumbai City man sealed a sensational return by putting India ahead in the hour mark after bursting through on goal from a Jeje flick. The Hoshiarpur-born man provided some direct running and energy which Robin Singh failed to provide in the first-half. He kept the Mauritius defense on their toes throughout with his energetic display and combined effectively with his strike partner from Mohun Bagan last season.
Though the result was satisfactory in the end for Constantine’s men, the performances of many left a lot to be desired. Hopefully, this can be put down to the rustiness of the players coming after a long off-season break. The Blue Tigers need to dish up a much more commanding display in their next match.