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AFC U-23 Asian Cup Qualifiers: India’s commendable display lends hope to a promising future – Three key highlights from the campaign

The Indian team was on the cusp of making history…

With some luck, India would have qualified for the 2022 AFC U-23 Asian Cup. A classic case of being so near and yet so far. A series of ‘what ifs’ dominate the narrative as the blue colts dropped curtains on their U-23 Asian Cup qualification campaign on Saturday night in UAE.

What if India had not conceded the penalty against UAE, what if Rahul KP was not denied by the post against Kyrgyzstan, what if India’s result against Oman had counted while ranking the second-best teams. However, if we stop brooding about what could have been and focus on reality, it was a still a creditable campaign from the India U23 team.

It is certainly not easy to take the field against technically superior sides with just three-four training sessions under your belt. And the Indian team did exactly that. They hardly got any time to fine-tune their bearings before facing Oman in the opener and yet played brilliantly to stun them 2-1. Moreover, to play three high-intensity matches within a span of eight days is no mean feat, especially when the domestic season is yet to kick off. 

The performance of the Indian team gives the fans enough reasons to be optimistic about the future. Let us take a look at the three key learnings from an encouraging campaign. 

Igor Stimac redeems himself

The Croatian coach had received a lot of flak after two successive disappointing results in the SAFF Championship after the draws against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka respectively. More than the result, it was the uninspiring display of the team that drew the ire of fans. If the SAFF Championship win had given him more breathing space, the spirited performance of the U-23 side has helped him to substantially redeem his credentials. His troops played fearless football in all three matches, and they displayed a brave mentality that was hitherto unknown while playing against higher-ranked teams.

They were being pragmatic while defending with bodies behind the ball, and at the same time were opportunistic to hit the opponents on the break. Although his introduction of Sumit Rathi against UAE replacing Vikram Pratap Singh remains questionable, the overall performance of the team was commendable.

A lot of potential, but needs to be nurtured

Five players of the 23-member squad were already a part of the senior team that travelled to Maldives for the SAFF Championship. Barring those five, there were a few others as well who grabbed eyeballs with their steady performances. Deepak Tangri, Vikram Pratap, Rahul KP were the most notable ones. Special mention must be made for Dheeraj Singh as well since the keeper had not featured for the senior team in Maldives, with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu being the first choice.

The AIFF (All India Football Federation) have done their bit by providing these players with game time and exposure with the Indian Arrows project in I-League, and now it is up to the players to make the step up and play regularly in the ISL. Vikram, Deepak, and Rahul KP showed that they have the mettle to shine at the big stage and now they should be trusted upon by their club coaches to do the same in ISL. In short, these players need to play at least 20-30 matches a season if they are to improve further.

Lack of goal-scoring options

After more than 270 minutes of football, India managed to score just one goal from open play. That is a cause of concern. There is a dearth of strikers in the senior team, and the trend seems to continue with the younger sides as well. Rahim Ali was being used as a striker and although the Chennaiyin FC player hustled against Oman with a strike from the spot and an assist, he was not in his element in the next two games.

He has the stature to be the target-man upfront but one must also note that a lack of regular game time as a number 9 has not helped his cause. It seems that the lack of genuine goalscoring option will continue to haunt India in the foreseeable future. 



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