India and Cameroon faced off in the ultimate match of round robin phase of Nehru Cup in an inconsequential clash. Both teams had reached the final so this was essentially an encounter using by which they tested their bench strength.
As expected, India made a few changes in the starting XI. Karanjit Singh replaced Subrata Pal in goal which Gurwinder Singh came in place of Raju Gaikwad. Mehtab Hussain started instead of Lenny Rodriguez in central midfield while Manandeep Singh replaced Sunil Chhetri as the lone striker. The most notable incident of the match occurred just a couple of minutes after the kick off as Bite Samuel beat Gourmangi Singh with his pace and gave the lead to the Indomitable Lions. In past years, the national team would have folded up conveniently if they went down a goal so early in the match.
However, it was heartening to see Wim Koevermans’ team keep their focus and stick to their game plan. Despite going down early India slowly came back into the match as Jewel Raja and Mehtab Hussain took control of the midfield. Assisting them was the untiring Syed Rahim Nabi on the flanks. Nabi, who was perhaps been the best player for India in Nehru Cup till now, bombed up and down the flanks and constantly linked up play with midfield and attack. He wasn’t neglecting his defensive duties either as he dished out some clattering tackles to break up Cameroon attacks. Denzil Franco was also assisting Nabi ably on the opposite flank as two of his crosses created good chances for equalizer.
With India looking stronger with every passing minute Cameroon needed to hit back and they got a golden chance seven minutes before half time. They were awarded a somewhat harsh penalty as Nabi committed a foul inside penalty box. Karanjit Singh showed great anticipation as he correctly read Ebanga Bertin’s chipped penalty to deny Cameroon a second goal. It was an extremely important save as a 2-0 trail might have completely demotivated the team for second half.
Wim Koevermans’ half time talk must have had a strong effect on Indian team as the Blue tigers came out determined in second half. Unlike first half, it was India who caught hold of the initiative from the start and tried to create scoring chances. Sanju Pradhan and Nabi were especially dangerous on the wings and caused problems to opponent defence time and again. Koevermans tried to shake things up by replacing Manandeep with Robin Singh but to no avail.
India did create a lot of chances in second half and were the dominant team but they clearly missed the clinical finishing of Chhetri upfront. Six minutes before the final whistle Alwyn George made a much awaited debut for the senior team but he had very less time to make any impact. India’s best chance of drawing level came on 82nd minute when Sanju Pradhan found Francis Fernandez in the box with a cross. Francis’ header was saved by an acrobatic Hosea to the wonder of 20,000 strong crowd. Eventually India failed to get a goal as Cameroon eked out a narrow 1-0 win.
There were a lot of positives from this match despite the loss. India’s approach was the biggest positive as the team didn’t lose focus despite letting an early goal in. India stuck to the game plan which shows tactical discipline like never before. India’s performance in second half was commendable as the Blue Tigers controlled the pace of the match – another rarity. With the ground being comparatively dry, India was able to play passing football and Jewel, Nabi, Sanju showed some encouraging inter-play. Among individuals Syed Rahim Nabi was easily the pick of the match for India.
Among the negatives, the biggest worry will be lack of goals. India has now failed to score in 180 minutes of football. Creating chances was not a problem against Cameroon but India lacked clinical edge. The lone striker formation works well with Sunil Chhetri upfront but none of the other Indian strikers have his scoring ability. Manandeep’s movement was good but his finishing was not up to International standards. India did struggle a bit with Cameroon’s pressing in first half. To play possession-based football, players must have enough technique to hold on to the ball even under pressure and it was clear that Indian players are yet to fully develop that ability. The central defence will still be cause of concern as Cameroon players opened up Indian defence several times just using their pace.
Overall, there were a lot of positives for both sides for the final. However, having played mostly subs it might be unfair to judge the teams’ from this match only.