India's 2019 Intercontinental Cup campaign was far from remarkable but there were positives to take away for the new head coach Igor Stimac.
The Cup competition was a platform for the Croatian coach to make full use of his squad and find his first-team before the upcoming World Cup qualifiers in September.
While India didn't offer anything scintillating on the field, there were enough indicators to help Stimac trim the large pool of talent according to how he wants his team to play. There was more emphasis on keeping the ball on the ground in all the three matches India played at the TransStadia in Ahmedabad.
After five games in charge of the national team, defence seems to be an area that needs major attention. While the first two games exposed the nerves and lack of confidence of the defenders, the game against Syria, the strongest team on paper before the tournament kicked off, suggested that there is still hope when it comes to shutting down good attackers.
Rahul Bheke and Narender Gahlot, both of whom were unimpressive in the previous matches, put on a commendable display as the centre-backs in India's back four. With Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika waiting to overcome their injury and return to the fold, Bheke and Gahlot have finally given the head coach something to work with in the centre-back department.
In midfield, Sahal Abdul Samad, Anirudh Thapa and Amarjit Singh have caught the eye of many and it is safe to say that the trio will continue to feature under the Croatian coach. Sahal can get out of tight situations upfront. Anirudh Thapa has been playing a deeper role in midfield and has worked tirelessly to help his team so far. Midfield workhorse Amarjit is the find of the tournament and the teenager, who nobody expected to continuously feature under the new coach, may have already gotten into his favourites' list if there is one!
Against Syria, Udanta Singh was arguably the most dangerous player in the attacking third with his pace and directness. He was a menace for the opposition to handle and supported by a solid Pritam Kotal at right-back, India's right flank looks more or less settled. Mandar Dessai and Lallianzuala Chhangte need to a bit more on the opposite flank, both in attack and in tracking back. Jerry Lalrinzuala, who replaced Mandar at left-back in the second half, gave away the penalty for Syria's equaliser and looks a shadow of the players that impressed for Chennaiyin in the ISL a season back.
Lack of quality strikers is an issue that continues to haunt the team. The likes of Jobby Justin and Manvir Singh have disappointed in the chances given to them. While Manvir's deployment on the right wing can be questioned given his crossing and pace are not his best attributes, he needs to put in a lot of improvement in the centre-forward role. Given that the coach has emphasised the need for pace on both the flanks and with Chhetri's good form in front of goal, Justin and Manvir will have to wait on the wings.
It was a sorry sight at the back for India in the first two games but there was a considerable improvement in the third match. Going forward, it is clear that there is a change of philosophy that is being implemented but that process needs young players to get grips with it first and it will take time. And with Stimac ready to trust the youngsters, he has got the first step right.