Stephen Constantine and his men were under the pump for the majority of the 90 minutes at the Suzhou Olympics Sports Centre. It took an impressive showing by India’s rearguard, poor finishing from China’s strikers and a hint of luck for the visitors to come away with a goalless draw to show for on the night.
It could all have been so different for the Blue Tigers had one of the two Chinese attempts which struck the post crept in or if the hosts’ attackers had shown just a little more composure in front of goal.
However, luck and China’s poor finishing aside, India have a lot to feel good about themselves after a hard grind. Credit needs to be given to Constantine and his men for going to China with a game plan and nearly walking away with a famous win.
For all the pressure India were put through on the night, they could very well have had the last laugh if Farukh Choudhary not fluffed his lines in added time.
That was not the only chance India had on the night. They came close on at least three other occasions, two of them through set pieces. The first was a delightfully curled free-kick from Anirudh Thapa in the first-half which found Sunil Chhetri in some space inside the Chinese box. Unfortunately for India, the striker’s scuffed volley was some way off target.
Skipper Sandesh Jhingan, who was a rock for India in the heart of the defence, came close too with another set piece. However, his header from an 80th-minute corner flew agonisingly over the bar.
Constantine’s game plan had been clear from the very go. Even though India had lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, that quickly changed to a 4-4-2 with two banks of four always firmly behind the ball.
While the narrowed gap between its defence and midfield meant India were largely ineffective in the Chinese half, it helped the visitors close down spaces for the hosts’ attackers. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Jhingan were unflappable on the night while Pronay Halder displayed plenty of tenacity at the base of midfield.
Letting his defence and midfield sit back to absorb all the Chinese pressure, Constantine’s game plan had been to rely on set pieces and quick breakaways to steal a goal. Pritam Kotal’s first-half attempt and Choudhary’s poor miss in the dying minutes had been two instances where India nearly succeeded on the counter.
Chhetri and Jhingan’s chances had both come through set pieces. For all the Chinese pressing and domination, Constantine’s gambit had nearly paid off. True, India were not pretty to watch at times but for them to come out all guns blazing and blow away a formidable Chinese team with their technical abilities would have been wishful thinking.
It was a pragmatic approach chosen by the Englishman and it has earned India a respectable result at the home of a side ranked 21 places above it in the FIFA table. It is a strategy which will very much be needed by India once again when they take part in the 2019 AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
The calibre of opponents India face in the 24-team competition will be the same as on Saturday if not better. The quality of teams faced by India over the past two years or so along with the famous ‘unbeaten’ run has perhaps skewed expectations.
Saturday, though, was the first true test of India’s Asian Cup credentials. It was one in which Constantine showed that he has the tools to grind out a favourable result with the assets at his disposal.
He showed that he is developing a settled outfit.
“We may not have the quality what the other teams in Asia have. But we can fight against any team in Asia,” Constantine said after the result.
An ability to fight was exactly what his men showed at Jiangsu. It could have been a big loss, it could even have been a famous win. In the end, it was only a draw. India will never be able to go toe-to-toe with Asia’s finest based on current ability. However, Constantine has now shown that they can grind out the results with even their backs permanently against the walls and that could make all the difference in the UAE next year.