The wait was over for the Indian football fans as the Blue Tigers were back in action this Friday after a month as they locked horns against Malaysia in the semi-final of the 42nd edition of the Merdeka Cup at the iconic Bukit Jalil National Stadium in Kuala Lumpur. Despite India being ranked 102nd and Malaysia being 134th in the world rankings, the latter inflicted a resounding 4-2 victory against the SAFF Champions, aided by some very poor decisions from the referees as the Blue Tigers continued their abysmal away record under Igor Stimac.
Malaysia opened the scoring in the 7th minute as Dion Cools scored after the ball rebounded to him from a corner. India replied quickly with a brilliant volley by Mahesh Naorem after a masterful backheel flick assist by Sahal, making it 1-1 in the 13th minute. Malaysia took the lead again in the 20th minute from the spot as Nikhil Poojary conceded a penalty. Faisal Halim doubled Malaysia’s lead right before the first half ended, helped by a poor back pass by Mahesh.
India came back strong in the second half as Sunil Chhetri pulled one back in the 51st minute to make it 2-3 for the visitors but controversy struck just five minutes later as Chhangte’s goal was disallowed by the referee even though the ball was clearly over the line. Things got worse for the demoralized Blue Tigers as Malaysia sealed a thumping win by making it 4-2 in the 61st minute and as a result, qualifying to the final of the tournament against Tajikistan.
The key takeaways from the match are as follows:-
1. Referee Disasterclass
Even though the scoreline suggests a fairly comfortable victory for Malaysia, the story of the game could’ve been entirely different had the Chhangte goal been allowed by the officials. The ball was clearly over the line and even the Malaysian players were surprised at the decision to disallow that goal. This moment proved to be pivotal in the game as India were looking very dangerous going forward after Chhetri’s goal in the 51st minute. The goal would have been a very timely equalizer and with the momentum India had, the game could have easily shifted to India’s favour. Stimac’s men lost their composure after this decision and conceded the 4th goal to Malaysia just minutes later, putting the game beyond their reach. The poor officiating continued as India should have gotten a penalty in the 81st minute after a handball in the Malaysian box but the referees decided against it.
2. Poor Pitch and Transport plague India’s experience
The Bukit Jalil National Stadium is one of the largest stadiums in the world with a capacity of 87,000 and boasting of world-class facilities. However, the quality of the pitch was terrible, to say the least. Barely five minutes into the game and patches of grass were seen flying off of players’ boots, sand spraying everywhere, coupled with a couple of tumbles due to the grass slipping under the players.
Along with that, Stimac’s team had to wait for an hour and a half for their bus to transport them to training venues.
India also claimed that the organisers were slow in confirming suitable training venues for their players. As a result, some of the Indian players suffered groin injuries due to the poor conditions of the training pitches according to Igor Stimac. After the heavy investments in the stadiums and football facilities in Malaysia over the last few years, it was quite disappointing to see such poor pitches and organization at their show-piece football tournament.
3. Malaysia’s pressing football too strong for India
Even though the poor refereeing decisions had a big role to play in India’s defeat, The Blue Tigers did concede four legitimate goals and many questions are to be raised about India’s defensive performance and their inability to retain possession against the high-pressing football displayed by the Malaysians. Indian centre-backs and full-backs frequently lost the ball in their own half against the marauding Malaysian forwards who were pressing high up the pitch throughout the game.
Stimac’s men lost the ball at very critical areas of the pitch, which led to many attacks as Malaysia should’ve scored at least a couple goals more in the first half itself. Even though India came back stronger in the second half, they looked uncomfortable against high pressing, conceding multiple chances and this is something Stiamac and his staff have to significantly improve from a tactical as well as physical fitness perspective before the 2026 World Cup Qualifiers next month.
4. Anwar and Thapa were big misses
One of the key reasons for India’s troubles against the high-pressing football was the inability to play out from the back and retain possession of the ball in tight spaces and situations and India really missed Anwar Ali and Anirudh Thapa’s composure on the ball in order to do that. Jhingan and Mehtab looked very uncomfortable in terms of playing out from the back finding the midfielders in good positions, often losing out the ball due to poor passing.
Anwar Ali, who is by far India’s best ball-playing centre-back, was missed as his presence could have helped India in this regard. Along with them, Rohit had a very poor game as he was losing the ball very often and failed to defend against the counter-attacks. Thapa’s unavailability was felt massively in the game, showing how crucial he is to Stimac’s system. Due to Mehtab’s poor performances for India in his last few appearances, Stimac could look at Lalchungnunga, who had a very strong showing in the recently concluded Asian Games for India U-23s.
5. Sahal and Mahesh show their class
In a very disappointing loss, Sahal and Mahesh were the two shining lights for India as they combined to score a wonderful equalizer in the 13th minute of the game. Sahal is probably having his best individual this season after his brilliant performances for Mohun Bagan SG in the ISL, registering multiple assists for the Mariners and also having many goal contributions for the national side in recent times. Along with his assist for Mahesh’s wonderful goal, Sahal looked threatening with the ball and always looked to start attacks.
Mahesh also continued his goal-scoring form for India by scoring a wonderful goal and also playing a very important role in India’s second goal with a brilliant defence-splitting long pass. Even though Mahesh’s poor back pass led to the third goal for Malaysia, he was constantly looking to create chances for the team. Sahal and Mahesh’s form will be pivotal as the Indian National Team look forward to the qualification games against Kuwait and Qatar next month.
Overall, India’s short Merdeka Cup campaign turned out to be a disappointment as they lost to a much lower-ranked Malaysia side convincingly at the end of the day. Along with the poor result, India will not get to play another match due to the Palestine side cancelling their participation which is not ideal for Igor Stimac’s preparation for the upcoming World Cup Qualifiers.
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