After Asian Cup exit, what next for India?
Stephen Constantine's men did it the hard way -- scripting an improbable second-half wipeout of Thailand in a 4-1 win, pushing hosts UAE to the edge but paying for their lack of finishing in a 2-0 defeat, and then reserved their worst for the last. The score might have read only 1-0 to Bahrain, but India were outplayed and outmaneuvered before finally being shown the way out.
What are some of the positives and negatives, and what lies in store for this team, now without Constantine, who stepped down following the Bahrain defeat?
It's a young Indian team, and there was enough spark shown in the three matches to suggest there's lots to work with for anybody succeeding Constantine. The outgoing coach and his support staff have done a good job of making this a fit, compact side. What the new man might just need to work on is a philosophy that the players can embrace.
If Thailand were beaten with speed, pace and clinical finishing -- a performance that made Sven-Goran Eriksson sit up and take notice -- India's tactical battle with UAE was appreciated by coaches from across rival teams. They played a compact game based around counters, and troubled the hosts with pace and flair when pushing forward. All they lacked to show for their industry were goals.
The quality of the Indian play dipped as they went into the Bahrain match -- injuries to players didn't help their cause either -- but they showed heart in all three games. Since it has now been registered that the Indian team can give any rival a good game, it should bode well for scheduling friendlies against better teams, which wasn't always the case before the Asian Cup.
Some players stood out for their relentless performance -- goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and centre-back Sandesh Jhingan immediately spring to mind -- and they will be critical to performing a leadership role in Indian teams of the immediate future.
With youth comes inexperience, and the dip in performance in successive matches was visible with some of the youngest players. Was there a case for India needing to be braver in their tactical planning for the final game? No doubt about it. Did they have the quality to sustain a high-pressing game for a third game inside nine days? We will never get to know, but I doubt they are there yet. Whoever takes over from Constantine will probably need to imbibe belief and bravery into the team first of all, regardless of what tactical and technical acumen they bring to the side.
Consistency across a big tournament is one of the key factors that this team will have to imbibe. To be fair, their recent results suggest they are doing much better on that count, but when mixing it with the bigger teams they will need to keep it up from the first minute to the last. What they also desperately need is to show more faith in their strikers, their forward players, and perhaps try out newer options if the ones in the team aren't inspiring confidence.
A question of style
One of the common questions that is asked often is about the Indian style of playing football, and whether a coach can come and impose his own style to develop it according to what suits India the most.
With greater knowledge and exposure, Indian players these days are fitter and stronger than what previous generations were, but their skills on the ball are still not quite good enough to make them a possession-based football side, especially against good opposition. Any coach coming in might still need to work his strategy around counter-attacks, and hopefully work in a holistic manner with the federation to develop grassroots education to allow a stream of quality youngsters coming into national reckoning. The style will probably evolve with better technical skills, and that might take a few years to develop.
What next for India?
There are two major qualifying events that begin this year -- the AFC U-23 qualifying in Uzbekistan in March (that will eventually serve to feed teams for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo) and the World Cup 2022 qualifiers, whose first leg is in June (though India, with their world ranking, will probably only join the fray from September on)
One of Constantine's big contributions was that he blooded a number of young players, especially those under 23, during his tenure. For the first qualifying competition, India are grouped alongside hosts Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, and need to at least finish second to stand a chance of making the final 16 teams out of the initial 44. It is difficult, but not impossible given that the Asian Cup squad itself has nine members -- names like Anirudh Thapa, Ashique Kuruniyan, Udanta Singh and Salam Ranjan Singh -- who are under 23 and would be eligible.
The World Cup qualification will be a whole new ball game. India, with an improved ranking, could get a more favourable draw than in 2015, when they came out against teams like Iran, Oman and Turkmenistan. This may yet be a leap too far at this stage, but what this tournament, and that Thailand game in particular, has shown is that India can play football, and this will have raised expectations across the board. This team needs to show it can live up to them.
This showing at the 2019 Asian Cup cannot become a beacon of nostalgia 10 years on. It has to become a springboard from which Indian football can push for greater heights.