Afghanistan draw a warning for Igor Stimac to back up style with substance
It's the fourth minute of India's crucial World Cup qualifier against Afghanistan. India have hogged the ball since kick-off and have been passing it slickly amongst themselves, one-touch at times, yet patient, probing. Suddenly, Brandon Fernandes senses an opening. With Ashique Kuruniyan, Sahal Abdul Samad, and Sunil Chhetri drifting toward him (left, left-centre), Fernandes switches play to the opposite flank with a delicious crossfield. Pritam Kotal traps it before marauding forward, plays a quick one-two with Udanta Singh and then... nothing.
Kotal crossed a decent looking ball into the Afghan box, into which no one in blue had made a run, and that was that. Afghanistan cleared with the minimum of fuss.
Those fifteen-odd seconds encapsulated the early days of the Igor Stimac era neatly. Moments of true quality -- flowing out of the players trusting their touch, a coach believing in his players -- which all too often end in nothingness.
Against Afghanistan, there had been glimpses of potential throughout, little bursts of magic that vanished almost as soon as they appeared.
Brandon, dropping deep, started some interesting moves, but misplaced simple balls just as often. Ashique ran, and ran, but mostly into cul-de-sacs. Sahal flattered to deceive. A few lovely passages of play were killed either by the final ball, as with the move in the fourth minute, or the finish -- as happened when Chhetri, of all people, missed an open goal from three yards out.
Varying doses of promise. Then, nothing.
It's this nothingness that might well come back to haunt Stimac's reign as coach of the Indian national football team.
Stimac is a big man, with the shoulders of a bear, and a presence that instantly demands attention. He uses this to good effect, especially when addressing the media - personality commanding, face expressive, hands emotive, accent fine-tuned to put emphasis on key words. "Attractive football", "entertaining the crowd", "creating chances", "bringing young players through". It's great to hear, the positivity a thrilling departure from yore. It's easy to get swept away.
It'd have been even easier if his team had translated all those words into action. India needed a late, 93rd-minute-late, equalizer to salvage a draw against lower-ranked Afghanistan. They had needed an 88th-minute equalizer to do the same against an even lower-ranked Bangladesh just last month.
What that means is that after four games in the first round of World Cup qualifying, India have three points and languish second from bottom, seven points off table-toppers Qatar. It will take a near-miracle for this team to even touch second-placed Oman, who are six points ahead.
Tactical ineptness, and a goalkeeping error, cost India two points against Bangladesh. Mediocrity in individual performances cost them the points against Afghanistan. After the high of the first two games, these two lows have hit hard. It's easy to apportion blame. It's easy to throw your hands up and claim nothing will improve. Wasn't Indian football always supposed to be like this? It would be easy, but that would not make it right.
Being expressive, even trying to be expressive comes at a price, and Stimac seems to be willing to meet it, however high, betting that it would pay off in the long term.
He has been allowing play to flow through his ball-playing midfielders. He has got the team pressing high, at least for some stretches. He has got them playing quick-passing football, at least in moments. He has been picking players on merit, mostly (like Farukh Choudhury coming into the team off a good start to the ISL season).
The team has been fighting to the end, as evidenced by those late goals. Even at their worst, they have tried to keep their shape, tried to keep the ball and make meaningful use of it, instead of launching Hail-Marys every time a move doesn't come off.
These little things matter. The fact that India is trying matters.
Of course, draws such as the ones against Bangladesh and Afghanistan will be looked down upon as two points dropped rather than one gained. Finishing anywhere lower than third in this group will be considered disappointing in the extreme. Trying and expressing and talking about philosophy will all only matter if the results start coming through.
Stephen Constantine had his critics, but he did help India qualify for the Asian Cup. Not matching it will be an outright failure.
But it's too soon to write off either team or manager. Constantine's India ended their eight-match WC qualifying campaign at the bottom of the group, with seven defeats and just three points. Stimac's India have already matched their points tally. In the process, they have gone to Qatar, and stopped the champions of Asia in their tracks. They have come within seven minutes of beating Oman.
Yes, India need to score more goals. They need to create more chances from open play. They need to close out games against teams that sit back and absorb pressure. Individuals need to find consistency, management needs to develop a touch more nous. But there's still hope that India can do all this, and get results, without reverting to safety-first football.
It wasn't Stimac's big words or the inane hype around the team that had first stoked that hope. It had been the first forty-five minutes of their World Cup qualifying campaign. Forty-five minutes where they dominated the ball, created chances, and scored a superb goal. Forty-five minutes of slick, beautiful, high-tempo football, that had had Oman on the ropes and Indian football fandom in dreamland.
On the 19th, India face Oman again in a must-win encounter in Muscat. That hope could do with some rekindling.