A dramatic injury time equalizer by substitute C.S. Sabeeth earned India a berth to the first round of the 2012 AFC Olympic Qualifiers, after Desmond Bulpin’s boys registered a 1-1 draw in the second leg of their preliminary round qualifier against Myanmar in an nerve-wrenching  battle at Yangon’s Youth Training Center. The home team, after scoring in the 64th minute, was cruising to the next round on away goal rule, however, team India staged a spirited fightback to bring things back on level  terms. Sabeeth’s goal in the dying moments of injury time underlines the fact that this team has the mental strength and never-say-die attitude to scale bigger heights in the future. The 2-1 home win in the first leg would mean that India go through to the next stage on 3-2 home-away aggregate.

Sabeeth, the savior!

The Ninety Minutes : What Actually Happened

The 2-1 advantage from the home leg meant that India would go to the next stage if they could defend resolutely and end the match with a clean-sheet. The other possibility for Desmond Bulpin was to go for an attacking starting line-up and make sure that India gets to nullify Myanmar’s away goal by scoring early, and then proceeding for the remaining minutes as the situation demands. But Bulpin had different ideas. He went in with a similar 4-4-2 system which was deployed in the home leg. Three changes were made in the first 11. In defense, Nirmal Chhetri made way for Inderpreet Singh while Vishal Kumar was drafted in to replace injured Mohan Raj. In the four men midfield set-up, Jibon Singh was dropped in favor of Subodh Kumar. Gurpreet Sandhu started in goal, while Raju Gaekwad and Abhishek Das completed the back four. The other three midfielders – Jewel Raja, Shilton D’Silva and Lalrindika Ralte – who started in the home leg – kept their places in the starting line-up. Jeje Lalpekhlua and Malswamfela combo was preferred upfront leaving Robin Singh and C.S. Sabeeth to warm the bench.

India went for the long ball tactics, quite similar to the senior national team. However, it failed to make any impact as the forwards ,Jeje and Malswamfela, were finding it difficult to cope up with the system, and the Myanmar defenders were very comfortable dealing with them. Crisp passing and quick movement by the home team made way for a couple of defensive lapses early on, but India managed to keep the Myanmar strikers at bay for the first half. Although it was Myanmar who looked impressive in the first half, team India got a couple of great chances to go ahead. Shilton’s D’Silva’s drive was acrobatically saved by Zin Htet, the Myanmar goal-keeper, before another attempt by the promising midfielder missed the target by a whisker. The game heated up a bit with Myanmar looking desperate to nullify India’s one goal advantage and a couple of Myanmar players – Yan Aung and Nyar Na Lwin  – got into the referee’s book in the first half. When both the teams went for the breather, the deadlock was yet to be broken.

India did not make any half time substitution, while Myanmar sacrificed defender Aung Hein Kyaw for striker Kyaw Ko Ko. The second half started with Myanmar taking control of the game.  They kept possession and pressed India down in their own defensive third. Soon after his introduction, Ko Ko was booked for a rash challenge on Jewel in the 59th minute. But soon he made amends and drew the first blood for the hosts, much to the amusement of the home crowd. But only a minute after, he received his second booking and Myanmar was reduced to 10 men. Knowing that India had to equalize if they are to go through, Bulpin sensed the opportunity and brought on Jibon Singh in place of Subodh Kumar in the 65th minute. A couple of minutes later, the new Indian football sensation Robin Singh was put into the fray as a substitute for Malswamfela. The move paid off almost immediately with Robin combing well with Jeje, only to see the latter’s volley go inches wide off the far post.

Robin played an useful cameo

Desperate for an equalizer, India by then had started to dictate the game against a 10-man Myanmar side. Bulpin played the masterstroke and called upon C.S. Sabeeth, sacrificing a defender in Inderpreet Singh in the 83rd minute. For the last 10 minutes, it was all India as the ball was refusing to go out of the Myanmar half. India produced waves of attack and got the reward at the stroke of the final whistle when Sabeeth found the equalizer to spoil the host’s party.

The Midfield Was Criminally Underutilized

This India U-23 team is a replica of their senior squad in terms of playing style. The attack looks too one dimensional with the flow of long balls from defense to the forward line. There is no bridge between these two departments as the midfield has been criminally under-utilized by Bulpin. All the players were floating the long balls from deep inside their own half in the hope that one of the two strikers would make at-least one of those count. But Myanmar had figured out that strategy in the away tie and they were quite comfortable in dealing with the long balls.

There was hardly any creativity from the center of the park, although a few magical touches by Jewel and Shilton later in the match suggested that they are capable of producing good attacking balls from the midfield. Bulpin has to address this situation if India has any further plans of progressing in this tournament. The long ball tactic clearly did not work today and it would look no less than ridiculous if India employs similar strategy against well built west Asian opponents. Height is a major concern for Indian strikers and they would not stand any chance if they are to deal with aerial balls against tall and physically superior west Asian defenders.

Is Des Bulpin The Right Man?

One might wonder, if it is right to criticize the coach on the day when we have made a significant progress in the Olympic qualifier. But it’s better to bring out the tactical incompetence in the coach before it becomes too late.

If one observes the two matches India played against Myanmar, one thing is clearly evident – Bulpin does not have a Plan-B ready if Plan-A fails to deliver the expected output. One cannot expect Sabeeth to pull the team out of jeopardy in every match. The team requires a concrete Plan-B, especially when the long ball strategy fails to make the slightest of impact on opposition defense. It is a fact that Sabeeth was not in Bulpin’s scheme of things for this match and if India were not trailing by a goal till late in the second half, Sabeeth would have been warming the reserve bench in this game. Both Indian strikers, Jeje and Fela, are quite similar in their stature and style of play. Bulpin should have thought of bringing in Robin Singh or Sabeeth to add a new dimension to the attacking third even before Myanmar got that vital lead.

Mr. Bulpin Failed To See The Obvious

The biggest drawback with Bob Houghton and Des Bulpin is that they follow a strict British strategy of deploying a rigid 4-4-2 formation without taking into consideration the opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. Bulpin failed to respond to his Myanmar counterpart’s decision to introduce a striker in the second half by replacing a defender, which ultimately cost India that vital goal. But what surprises the most is that even after conceding the goal, he stuck with the same 4-4-2 by introducing Jibon in place of another midfielder, Subodh. His second substitution was once again a  like for like one when Fela made way for Robin. It took him 83 minutes to realize that the need of the hour was to be flexible and unleash another striker into the scheme of things. Then came in Sabeeth and made all the difference. The delay in bringing another striker in would have proved to be too costly if the injury time was even a minute less.

Team Selection Blunders

Team selection also leaves a lot to be desired. The criteria for selection in the national team lacks clarity. It defies logic that even after producing splendid performances week-in and week-out in I-League, how on earth the Salgaocar pair of Gilbert Oliviera and Francis Fernandes can be ignored? Bulpin was initially reluctant to include Robin Singh in the team, but he had to gave in after a nationwide outcry. After the splendid cameo that Robin displayed today, Bulpin must be repenting his error in judgment.

Also going with Nirmal Chhteri in the first leg was another ill-timed decision by Bulpin. Nirmal is a terrific defender, no doubt, but he was sidelined with injury for almost six months and hardly participated in any competitive game before he was deemed ready by Bulpin to start for the national team. It was one of Nirmal’s mistakes which made India to concede that one goal in the home leg which might have proved costly today if Sabeeth did not come up to his side’s rescue with the all important equalizer in the dying seconds.