After ending a 730 days wait for a win against Bangladesh, India faced off against Afghanistan in the final matchday in Fifa World Cup Qualifiers. The Blue Tigers needed a draw against 149th ranked Afghan side to finish third in the group, and they managed to do the bare minimum. Igor Stimac’s men rode their luck in another underwhelming performance to book a place in the third round of AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers. In a scrappy game filled with individual mistakes while moving the ball forward and with no clear cut goal scoring chances created, India went ahead after an hour and a quarter played from an Azizi howler which was cancelled out 7 mins later by a Hossien Zamani strike. While a draw was enough to secure smooth progression into the next round of Asian Cup qualifiers, Indian football fans were left wanting more after that performance. A dispirited image of Chhetri on the bench after the game sums up India’s performance on the pitch.
Here are our 5 takeaways from the game.
1. Ovays Azizi’s gift to India
Azizi had a fairly quiet game in goal except for a couple of saves during the first quarter of an hour into the game. Azizi, who plays for Ariana FC in Sweden, has been Afghanistan’s number 1 choice under the bar since 2015. In a game predominantly played in the midfield with occasional balls in the box, the goalkeepers were rarely disturbed, and Azizi looked very secure while handling crosses into the box. But calamity struck around the 75th minute. While India has been prodding and probing at Afghanistan all game, they struggled to create any clear cut goal scoring opportunities.
A harmless looking ball into the box from the left by Ashique was all set to be gobbled up by the Afghani keeper. Under absolutely no pressure from any Indian players in the box, Azizi seemed to have caught the ball in mid-air only to fumble it and let it drop. The loose ball hit the Afghan keeper on his leg and rolled into an unguarded net as Azizi couldn’t believe what had transpired. India’s perseverance was rewarded in the unlikeliest manners, and Azizi looked pretty shaken up from his mistake and looked under pressure for the remainder of the game, scoffing away easy clearances. What will plague the 29-year-old would be if not for his mistake, would Zamani’s strike have propelled Afghanistan instead of the Blue Tigers into the third round of the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.
2. Hossein Zamani’s equalizer and Afghan’s naturalized players
In the current Afghan squad makeup, 22 of its International players ply their trades outside the country and some of them in the lower European leagues. Afghan national team’s decision to incorporate naturalized players who have represented other countries at junior level but have an Afghan connection is reaping benefits for the National team. With players playing in foreign leagues, the current Afghanistan football team looks more secure on the ball and prefers to play possession-based football. Their performance against India in both legs of the World Cup qualifiers is a testament to the influence these players have brought on the team.
Zamani is one such example, who represented the Netherlands at junior level and the former Ajax Academy graduate has opted to represent Afghanistan in his senior career. Zamani grabbed his second international goal against the Blue Tigers when he received the pass inside the Indian penalty box from the left and cut onto his right foot and unleashed a shot before being closed down by Glan and Sana Singh. His shot curled past the stretched hand of Gurpreet before clattering against the inside of the post and going in. The benefit of allowing naturalized players to represent the national side was for all to see today and Indian football fans will be sincerely hope that AIFF was taking note.
3. India’s lack of creativity in the Final Third
Igor Stimac has been trying to incorporate a possession-based brand of football into the national side, free-flowing passing, building up from the back and pressing to regain possession. While India looks secure defensively and the players look to be in sync while passing the ball laterally and building up from the back, the Blue Tigers look very ordinary while passing it forward with a host of passes going disarray. While their attempts to unlock the Afghan defence down the centre was evaded by some resolute defending on Afghanistan’s part and poor ball control and poor passes on India’s part, Stimac’s men looked towards the wings for answers.
While India tried to broaden their attack by playing down the wings and creating more open spaces in the Afghan defense, the ball into the box lacked quality. Both Manvir and Ashique were able to create space down the flanks, but their delivery into the boxes was disappointing as they failed to find an Indian counterpart inside the box on most occasions. Brandon, too had a very quiet game. The FC Goa midfielder has impressed everyone throughout the season with his passing abilities but looked out of sorts against Afghanistan, failing to find that killer pass to crave open the Afghan defense. The lack of a killer pass hurt the Blue Tigers game plan. It made the task easier for Afghan defenders. The lack of creativity should be a worrying sign for Stimac. Questions will have to be raised about the gaffer’s decision-making, given the plethora of talent at his disposal.