Newcomers and a new style prominent in India’s King’s Cup opener

India took on Curacao in the opening match of the 47th King’s Cup hosted by Thailand, which they eventually lost 3-1. Head coach Igor Stimac fielded an exciting attacking line up that saw Sunil Chhetri up front with Brandon Fernandes, Lallianzuala Chhangte and Udanta Singh supporting him. All the six players who got their first national call-up got onto the field, which will be a huge boost to their confidence. Although India didn’t get the result they were hoping for, there are a lot of positives to take from this match going forward.

Firstly, the incorporation of the newcomers was visible right from the get-go as every player who got called up for the first time did get some minutes on the field. Former U-17 team captain Amarjit Singh and Raynier Fernandes came on at the half-time to add some much-needed control in the centre of the park, while Micheal Soosairaj came on later in the second half to inject some more pace into the attack. India’s wingers looked lively when they did get a chance to go forward and were quite explosive.

However, three players stood out and stamped their authority on the field, namely, Abdul Sahal Samad, Brandon and Raynier, with Sahal being India’s best player on the field. He was exciting to watch and tried to make things happen every time he received the ball. Although not everything he tried came off, he didn’t let it demotivate him and always looked to move the ball forward. Brandon often found himself in tight spaces around the edge of the box but showed his quick feet to keep the ball and move it to a player in a better position. Meanwhile, Raynier looked very calm and composed. Whenever he received the ball, he tried to look up and play crisp passes. Amarjit Singh too was impressive. Although he did get pushed around a bit by the physically dominant Curacao players, overall he knew what he had to do in midfield. He was asking for the ball and played a few quick one-twos.

Stimac’s style of play is already visible. We saw the midfield retain possession, put a few passes together and keep the ball on the ground. Long balls were few and far between which is a positive sign moving forward. India tried to build attacks gradually, moving the ball around and looking for spaces in and around the opposition box.

On the other hand, Curacao fielded a very strong side. Cuco Martina and Leandro Bacuna were the standout players, with many of their other players plying their trade in top divisions across Europe. Given the pedigree that the opposition had, the Indian team really stepped it up. It was a game of two halves to be fair. Although Curacao played well and got their goals in the first half, India made them work for their victory during the second. Substitutions from the coach paid off as well and the team did give it their all till the final whistle.

At times, Chhetri did look isolated when Curacao pushed up and applied pressure on the midfield. This is something Stimac needs to work on, that is getting the likes of Udanta, Chhangte, Brandon and possibly even Anirudh Thapa and Soosairaj to play closer to the striker. The Indian captain is great at holding the ball up and if he has players making runs forward, he can surely find them with inch-perfect passes.

The Croatian also has to work on the team’s pressing without the ball. Going forward, the midfield was great but as soon as they lost the ball, there wasn’t really any pressure. Pronay Halder was caught in a no-man’s land on a few occasions as he had too much ground to cover by himself. This created space between the midfield and backline that Curacao exploited. Playing Raynier alongside him would probably make the midfield more compact. The midfielders also need to be more tenacious in winning the ball back in the future.

India did create a few clear-cut chances. Udanta had a really good chance right at the beginning that he decided to take with his weaker foot. Chhetri had a shot that hit the post and Amarjit too had a shot on goal after a patient build-up that he couldn’t find the net with. There’s a lot to work on for the new coach heading into the third-place match against Thailand, but the start has been nothing but positive.

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