As Thierry Makoun’s shot hit the post Indian football fans started hitting the streets, it was an ocassion to celebrate. India stunned African powerhouse Cameroon in a nerve wrecking penalty shoot out after a spirited and impressive 2-2 draw in normal time. Cameroon which has given legendary footballers like Roger Milla and Samuel Eto’o, succumbed to Indian team as the crowd celebrated hosts third consecutive Nehru Cup triumph.
Take a look into the FIFA world rankings; we can see two teams are miles apart in the ladder. Cameroon is ranked 59 in the world whereas sleeping giants India occupies it’s worst ever ranking 168. It’s easy to term it as a David vs Goaliath battle, isn’t it? Let’s take a closer look into the Cameroon squad. Most capped player Rigobert Song has retired from international football, captain and leading scorer Samuel Eto’o is in Russia playing for Anzhi. Alex Song made a move from Arsenal to European powerhouse Barcelona and is getting familiar to Camp Nou. Other top players Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Sebastian Bassong, Stephen Mbia, Joel Matip and Jean Makoun are busy in their league battles across Europe.
So who all visited subcontinent as part of the mighty Indomitable Lions who possess six World cup appearances under their belt including a quarter final appearance? It’s a bunch of African based footballers who are in line for the national team set-up. The young “local lions” whom the Africans are planning to groom keeping the next world cup in mind made the trip to India, after they failed to qualify for 2012-African Nations Cup. The team coached by Emmanuel Bosso didn’t have any established stars as Jean Patrick Abouna was the only player with international experience. Players like Ebanga Bertin, Joseph Momasso, Kingue Mpondo, Kologne Merime, Ashu Tambe has stepped up and taken the limelight in Nehru Cup en route to final.
Cameroon and India lined up with their full strength squads in the final after their experimentations in the dress rehearsal on Friday. As many as eight changes were made to Cameroon final XI while India reinstated five key players in their line-up including captain Sunil Chhetri and custodian Subrata Pal. Rain gods blessed the evening with perfect conditions as the match progressed with beautiful football on the turf.
Indians had done their homework before hand as they restricted the space for dangerous wingers Ashu Tambe and Joseph Momasso. Joseph was seen looking for space through the middle as quick closing down from Indian footballers frustrated the Africans. India slowly established themselves in midfield as Lenny and Mehtab expertly shut down their opposite numbers. On the other hand, Nabi-Clifford duo and Nirmal-Sanju duo restricted the Cameroon’s movement in flanks. In previous matches, Indian fullbacks were seen raiding the opposition with overlapping runs - this time Wim Koevermans was spot on with his tactics.
The opening goal soon came as Sunil Chhetri was fouled near the touchline on the right flank and resulting in a brilliant free kick from Clifford Miranda in the 19th minute. Flight of the ball beat opposition defence and with Syed Rahim Nabi waiting to pounce on the ball, Cameroon goal keeper advanced to punch but it was Indian vice captain Gourmangi Singh’s head which met with the ball and it ended up in the net. Indians took the lead but lost the momentum as an injury to the Lions goal keeper delayed the proceedings. Substitute goalie entered the fray and the lions tried to hunt back their opponents. Indians couldn’t capitalize on their lead as a cross was headed by Raju Gaekwad into the path of Thierry Makoun who vollied it into back of the net. Cameroon equalised within minutes and it changed the game pattern.
Cameroon’s superior physique aided to their advantage as Indians failed to deal with aerial balls. The headed clearances made by Indian defenders didn’t cover the distance and Cameroon attackers kept coming back to put incessant pressure. This is an area Wim Koevermans needs to work on in the future even though Indian’s didn’t succumb under pressure. Fans witnessed brilliant defending from Nirmal Chhetri and Syed Rahim Nabi on the flanks, closing down the spaces quickly and with better reading of the game.
India’s chances were few and far between as Cameroon started dominating the proceedings. India got a chance to take lead in second half but couldn’t capitalize on it. On the other end, a goalkeeping and defensive mistake from India on a corner kick gifted Mpondo with a free header. The marking wasn’t visible in the corner as Mpondo had a free header while Subrata Pal went missing on the goal line as he was caught in no mans land. The defenders on the line couldn’t prevent it from going in as the Indomitable Lions roared for the second time.
Cameroon started pressing for a third goal as Indian stuttered under pressure. They missed a sitter and then opted to change their approach with speedster Charles. Wim Koevermans felt that it was time to put more men forward as he opted to put striker Robin Singh in place of Sanju Pradhan. Robin brought the physical presence upfront while Fernandez switched to the right flank. The change brought more firepower upfront as Robin matched the Africans with physique. Indians’ off-the-ball movements were lively as Robin started winning possession and setting it up for his team mates. Nirmal Chhetri and Nabi started to explore the opposition half and more venom was added to the attacks. Finally Sunil Chhetri won a penalty in the 78th minute and converted it calmly by sending the goal keeper wrong way.
Indians played with more purpose looking for a winner and some beautiful football was on display. Cameroon was trying on hit India on the counter. It was an exceptional second half performance by India while tactical changes were spot on. Even though it looked likely that there might be a result in normal time, it didn’t materialize. Nirmal Chhetri, who was putting a man-of the match performance right back, injured himself in the added time and was subbed off before the whistle. Syed Rahim Nabi on the other flank made some darting runs as well. Sunil Chhetri and Robin Singh combined very well upfront and they were supported strongly by midfielders.
Extra time changed the pattern of the game as Wim Koevermans adopted a safety first approach. Cameroon attacked wave after waves while Indians depended on counters. Robin Singh headed away one of the best chances which came India’s way in extra-time. Indians sat back and absorbed the pressure and it looked as if they were happy with penalties looming. Most of the Indian players looked tired and the tactical change favoured them. Indians defended in numbers during extra time and it may have reminded fans about Chelsea’s Champions League triumph.
The match went on to penalties as Indians had hoped. Robin Singh, Sunil Chhetri, Denzil Franco, Mehtab Hossain and Clifford Miranda scored from the spot for India while Ashu Tambe, Ouismala Baba, Bebe Kingue and Kingue Mpondo scored for Cameroon. Goal scorer Thierry Makoun would like forget this day as he hit the post with his crucial penalty and the underdogs India lifted the Nehru Cup for the third time in a row.
Indian football can take a lot of positives from this outing. Indians showed true determination and grit when it was required. The ‘Never say die attitude’ was never seen before in the current generations’ time. The team has adopted new tactics and the coach’s tactical changes are starting to show. Players are more confident in possession while off the ball movement has also improved somewhat. Mehtab and Lenny covered a lot of ground and played an important part in India’s pressing football, providing support for attack and defence. In Nirmal Chhetri and Syed Rahim Nabi India has two outstanding wing-backs for the years to come.
This can be the dawn of a new era and Indian football needs to catch in on the momentum. AIFF needs to arrange more matches, to make use of the international friendly dates more. For the first time Nehru Cup was the trending topic in the cricket mad nation despite an intriguing on going Test match. This can be the fresh start Indian football needed.