INDIA'S BID FOR A PLACE at the FIFA World Cup in 2018 is all but over after suffering a demoralising 2-1 loss to Guam.
The Blue Tigers were outplayed for the majority of the game and asked few tough questions of the team ranked 174th in the world, making it their second loss in the last week. With 0 points from 2 matches, India now sit firmly at the bottom of Group D.
After losing to Oman in spite of a spirited performance at Bengaluru, the Indian contingent travelled to Guam, a US territory with a population of about 160,000. The journey took 27 hours, leaving the Blue Tigers with two days to get used to the climate and the time zone difference before they took on the 'Matao', as the Guam's men's national team is popularly known, at the Guam National Football Stadium. But none of that suffices as an excuse for the sub-par performance they put on today.
Stephen Constantine went with the same starting eleven he used against Oman, with one tactical departure: Sunil Chhetri was given the captain's armband for the first time under the British coach. The match saw a lukewarm beginning with C K Vineeth and Jackichand Singh trying to venture up the aisles, only to be misled by the defenders. Eugeneson Lyngdoh had an off-colour game, turned sour early on due to a 7th minute yellow card due to cynical tackling. The Bengaluru FC medio who had a prolific I-League season would be substituted at half-time.
Right after the 10th minute Guam started putting together attacks with increasing intensity. Early on it was far off-target shots from Jason Cunliffe and Brandon McDonald. 18 minutes in Alexander Lee set up Ryan Guy close to the penalty box and his shot missed the post by inches. Soon it became clear that Guam were dominating the midfield, and India's attempts at attacks lost tooth by the time it reached final third. The pacy Matao defenders were making their presence felt, too, as they crowded and isolated Indian players inside Guam's side of the pitch. In the 30th minute, when Jackichand ran up the right flank with Robin Singh and C K Vineeth coming along for support, it was Alex Lee who intercepted a cross which could spell danger if it reached its intended recipient. Seconds later, Sehnaj got the ball well outside the box, but chose to shoot instead of passing to the flanks. The ball was off target and the chance, wasted.
Guam immediately came back with a counter as Alex Lee's through ball saw Shane Malcom dart past India's defensive line. He had a clear sight of the goal but his shot only grazed the side netting. Undeterred, Guam kept pressing and took the lead around the 40 minute mark. Ryan Guy's long throw found Brandon McDonald unmarked inside the box who made no mistake in putting it past the far post. The assembled 3,700-odd crowd went delirious as the home team smelled their second ever victory in World Cup Qualifiers, days after they got their first.
India were taken aback by the goal and rushed to assert themselves and regain the control of the game, leading to missteps. Rino Anto picked up a yellow for a foul on John Matkin. Matkin almost took revenge when he ran past Indian defenders to collect another long throw in from Ryan Guy but ex Indian skipper Arnab Mondal was there to clear it. At half-time the score read 1-0, with Guam firmly in control of the game.
The second half began with both Indian players on a yellow card – Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Sehnaj Singh – being substituted for Dhanpal Ganesh and Cavin Lobo. With this new-look central midfield, India looked a lot more active n the early minutes of the second half. They kept more of the ball, trying to press forward in an organized fashion. In the 48th minute Rino Anto made a run up the right flank but John Matkin was there to dispossess him. Soon afterwards Cavin Lobo ran down the middle and passed the ball to his left, where Sunil Chhetri collected it and sent a cross back in for Lobo to take the shot… but it went wide. Jackichand Singh made another run but was blocked out by Guam's defenders.
With 55 minutes on the clock Guam got a golden opportunity to double their lead. Malcom's defence-splitting cross found its way to Travis Nicklaw inside the Indian penalty box with only Subrata Pal ahead of him. Nicklaw took the shot and it went over the crossbar. It was a gaping error but Nicklaw would soon make up for it. In the 61st minute, he received a ball with his back to the goal. Arnab Mondal was there to foil him. But Nicklaw gave the ball a slight tap, turned his body around like a whip to keep up with it, leaving the defender baffled. Again, he had the ball inside the box. Again it was only Subrata Pal in front of him. But this time he made no mistake. His left foot sent the ball into the net and made it 2-0 to Guam.
Cornered, Coach Constantine decided to form a more aggressive posture by sending in Jeje Lalpekhlua in Jackichand's place. India soon made a couple of advances rendered meaningless by poor finishes from Vineeth and Lobo. Meanwhile Arnab Mondal continued to struggle; Nicklaw once again got past him but this time Subrata rushed forward to make the well-timed clearance.
Rino Anto haven't given up. He continued to make advances deep into the opponent's half. He sent a cross in for Jeje but Shawn Nicklaw effectively neutralized him. A minute later he found Robin Singh with a similar pass and the latter headed it off target. But all the hard work paid off when a third cross found Sunil Chhetri whose header was right on target. India got a goal back, but unfortunately it was the last action of the day. Guam had registered what would be for them a historic win, beating India 2-1.
The sense of disappointment and gloom over the Indian players and staff was palpable as they were dealt a setback almost impossible to recover from. Coach Stephen Constantine spoke to in the post match press conference with grim stoicism. “Right from the outset, I had expected a tough game. The advantage which Guam had was to pick American-based players and they made good use of them,” he said. “We lacked football intelligence in key moments of the game and that cost us.”
These two back to back losses have sparked a debate over whether India went into this campaign under-prepared. The Indian Super League has stretched the Indian football calendar thin and as a result the Indian national team hasn't had the chance to play any friendlies to prepare themselves. Indeed, Constantine only got a few days with his team before the Oman match. Even before the Guam match he spoke of the necessity of playing in international friendlies ahead of their next qualifier match against Iran. Also, it is obvious that this team is yet to gel. The lack of experience, especially in the defense, was obvious when going up against two experienced sides that had ample time to prepare. Furthermore, Iran is a country with a strong grassroot system and most of Guam's players were brought up in the USA, where sports education in the schools is state of the art. All their players came into the game with stronger technical background and more time in the training ground than the Indian players. And the difference was there to see. Lack of a viable grassroot system has been a major factor in India's declining over the last few decades and it continues to haunt them every time they take on countries who have the benefit of a better grassroot programme. Although positive steps have been taken to remedy that over the past year, it will be at least a decade before the national team begins to benefit from them. As for now, Blue Tigers have nothing short of a mountain to climb if they wish to make a comeback from here.
Hopefully Constantine will get his wish. Maybe the players will get to gel as a team over the summer and get a couple of friendlies before they play Iran in September. But in spite of all, chances are, they might fall short. Progress to the third round of World Cup Qualifiers as well as a direct entry to the 2019 Asian Cup is reserved for the 8 group winners and 4 best runners up in this round; and it's next to impossible for India to finish among them, thanks two these defeats. What they can do, however, is to gather some crucial FIFA ranking points from the next few games and finish high enough to ensure a direct entry into the third round of Asian Cup Qualifiers without having to be in the playoffs.
These results have been a stark reminder for Indian football fans that World Cup qualification is still a distant dream, and India are in no position to make progress by leaps and bounds. So the need of the our is patience. A hard-earned spot in the 2019 Asian Cup, while not a thing to brag to the world about, is still progress. And for the multitude of old and new fans eagerly following the Blue Tigers' every step, it will have to be enough. For now.