SAFF Cup: For Indian football team’s stingy defence, another Lebanon test

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The sight of a despondent Anwar Ali, wincing as the ball flew into his own goal after he wildly swung the left leg, last Tuesday was vastly different from the joyous scenes the defender had sparked around this time last year.

With the same left leg, Ali, whose football career seemed over due to a rare heart condition, had scored his first international goal. The scorching volley against Hong Kong triggered wild celebrations at the Salt Lake Stadium, contributed to India qualifying for back-to-back Asian Cups and provided a rare feel-good story for Indian football that was enduring a season of churn.

June-July 2022 was a period of hope for some, and uncertainty for others.

While the stars finally aligned for Ali, they seemed to be conspiring against his partner at the centre of the defence, Sandesh Jhingan.

The big-hearted, strong-tackling defender suffered a misadventure in Europe after an injury cut short his stint with top-tier Croatian club HNK Sibenik. He returned home to ATK Mohun Bagan. But the reunion lasted only six months after the player and the club, now called Mohun Bagan Super Giant, parted ways.

Over in Hyderabad, a young Akash Mishra was putting pen to paper to seal an extended deal with the club that had reposed faith in the teenager who had arrived there as a mere future potential but blossomed into a reliable full-back.

However, Mishra’s teammate at Hyderabad, Nikhil Poojary, was battling a stagnating international career, fighting to keep his spot in the Indian team even though he contributed heavily to his club’s title-winning campaign in 2021-22.

This time last year, few would have predicted that the Mishra-Ali-Jhingan-Poojary quartet would become the crux of the Indian team. And yet, ahead of January’s Asian Cup, as coach Igor Stimac tries to piece together the puzzle that India’s starting XI is, he seems to have solved at least one part of the mystery – the defence.

Last Tuesday against Kuwait in the SAFF Championship – when the ball flew off Ali’s boot across the face of Amrinder Singh’s goal and into the far corner – India conceded the first goal in 831 minutes, according to Indian Super League’s data analyst Aditya Warty. It ended a run of eight clean sheets, the longest run in the national team’s history, as per Warty.

And in half of those matches, Mishra and Poojary have been the full-backs while Ali and Jhingan paired up in central defence, with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Amrinder alternating in the goal.

In the endless obsession over identifying all-time top-scorer Sunil Chhetri’s successor and searching for alternate sources for goals, the formation of a sturdy backline has propelled them to an unbeaten run in all nine matches they have played so far in 2023.

This run will be severely tested during Saturday’s SAFF Championship semifinal against Lebanon. More so, since Stimac, who was sent off for a second-straight match, and Jhingan, who accumulated one too many yellow cards, will be watching from the stands.

It can be argued that the unprecedented run came at home and mostly against teams ranked lower than them. But the two clean sheets against Lebanon in the Intercontinental Cup and the 1-1 draw against Kuwait earlier in the week lend some sort of credibility to the claims. In all three matches, Stimac stuck to what now seems to be his go-to first-choice back line.

A ball-playing defender who can control possession and distribute from the back, Ali complements Jhingan’s ability to land crunching, last-ditch tackles. Mishra’s marauding runs up and down the wings and Poojary’s versatility provides the team with extra options going forward. There is enough quality on the bench to ensure there isn’t any complacency, given that Subhashish Bose, Rahul Bheke and Mehtab Singh can make legitimate claims to be a part of the playing 11.

Indeed, a true – and far more superior – test for India’s defence will come in the months to come. In August, Chhetri & Co. will travel to Thailand, where they will compete in the King’s Cup against Iraq and Lebanon, apart from the hosts. Then, in October, India will take part in the Merdeka Cup in Malaysia where Palestine and the UAE, too, are likely to compete.

Those matches should give a clearer picture of the strength of India’s defence line and whether it will be able to withstand the pressure that the likes of Australia, Uzbekistan and, to some extent, Syria are likely to impose at the Asian Cup in January.

For now, however, India will hope for a third-straight clean sheet against Lebanon, a country whom they hadn’t beaten in 46 years before they ended the dubious record on June 18. Chhetri and Lallianzuala Chhangte scored the goals in the famous 2-0 win. But it was the back line who stood out. And they’ll have to do it all over again, without Jhingan.



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