India are all set to start their Intercontinental Cup adventure against Chinese Taipei come Friday at the Mumbai Football Arena.
On paper, the four-nation tournament serves as a chance for the Blue Tigers to fine-tune their preparations for the AFC Asian Cup in the UAE next year. As such, there will be no better opportunity for Stephen Constantine and his team to iron out a few flaws.
Most notable among them, has been India’s ever-growing reputation as notoriously late starters in their games.
In the side’s most recent international fixture against the Kyrgyz Republic in Bishkek, Constantine’s men went behind as early as the second minute of the match. The side would go down two behind in the second-half before notching up their only goal in the loss towards the dying minutes of the match.
The preceding match against Myanmar in the same AFC Asian Cup qualifiers had gone in very much the same vein with the hosts making a blazing start at Yangon with a goal in the very first minute. India did respond almost immediately with Sunil Chhetri’s 13th minute goal from the spot but the hosts came charging back and soon, it was 2-1 to Myanmar in the 19th minute.
India did eventually get the share of the points after Jeje Lalepekhua’s equalizer in the 67th minute but their sluggish start on that day could have put them out of the game in the first-half itself.
Even India’s most recent comprehensive win followed a similar story. In the 4-1 win over minnows Macao at the AFC Asian Cup qualifier at home, India had gone into the half-time interval at 1-1. It had taken Constantine’s men 28 minutes to break the deadlock against comfortably the worst team in their group. That lead lasted only nine minutes with the visitors grabbing a shock equalizer.
It was only in the second-half that the tempo of the game increased and the floodgates eventually opened. The manner in which the 4-1 win was achieved was very much reminiscent of India’s other notably comprehensive wins in the last two years – the 4-1 win against Puerto Rico in a friendly and the 6-1 thrashing of Laos in the AFC Asian Cup qualifier.
In both these games, it were the two eventual losers who had gone on to take the shock early lead, exploiting India’s vulnerability in the opening minutes from the whistle.
This alarming trend is not just limited to the cited matches with the Blue Tigers exhibiting this tendency to start slow regularly now for some time. When the Tri-nations Cup was held at the same venue last year, India had put in similar lackluster starts against Mauritius and St. Kitts and Nevis. It was tiny Mauritius who took the lead in the 15th minute against India with goals from Robin Singh and Balwant Singh on either side of the break earning a hard-fought three points. It was in fact Balwant’s introduction in the second-half which had given India some much needed energy after a lethargic first-half showing.
While India’s quality has seen them overcome the relatively weaker sides despite their sluggish starts, similar things cannot be expected in the continental showpiece in the UAE next year.
The qualification to a major tournament has come after a period of eight years for India. As such, it remains the biggest stage for Constantine’s men to showcase their true might for the foreseeable future. With quality sides at every hurdle of the tournament, there will simply be no margin for error when it comes to the Blue Tigers.
A characteristic sluggish start on that stage could be highly costly if India are to harbour any intentions of proceeding to the knock-out stages. Hence, with time running out in the preparation phase, Constantine and his staff will have to iron out this unexplainable trend of his squad having to be shocked by the opposition before being startled into action.