India kicked off their AFC Challenge Cup 2014 qualifying campaign with a slender victory over Chinese Taipei at the Youth Training Centre, Yangon on Saturday. Despite the blue tigers dominating proceedings for most of the 90 minutes, it took an injury time header from East Bengal forward Robin Singh to help India notch a dramatic victory over their Taiwanese counterparts. The win comes as a much-needed confidence booster for team India, following an embarrassing home defeat to Palestine in a friendly last month. On the other hand, Chinese Taipei have been left with a mountain to climb, in terms of Challenge Cup qualification, following their narrow defeat.
Coach Wim Koevermans made four changes to the Indian side that lost to Palestine in February, with Nirmal Chettri, Subrata Pal, Gurjinder Singh and Jewel Raja replacing Denzil Franco, Sandip Nandy, Syed Rahim Nabi and Alwyn George in the starting XI. With the blue tigers dominating the early proceedings, India came close on a few occasions, with Taiwanese goalkeeper Lu Kun-Chi twice denying Mehtab Hussain. Chinese Taipei, on the other hand, employed an effective counter-attacking system, which almost gave them the lead on a couple of occasions in the first half. It was only the brilliance of Subrata Paul between the posts, which helped India keep the scores level on both these occasions. In the 39th minute though, India finally broke the deadlock through midfielder Jewel Raja. Sunil Chhetri’s incisive through ball put the Mohun Bagan player in a one-on-one with the impressive Lu Kun-Chi, who could only watch Raja coolly slot the ball past him to give the blue tigers a 1-0 lead with 6 minutes to go in the first half. India held on for the next few minutes to keep the score at 1-0, going into the halftime break.
It was the Taiwanese team that began the second half the brighter of the two sides, with India forced into a more defensive approach in the early stages of this half. Less than ten minutes into the second half, one of Taiwan’s offensive raids into the Indian half resulted in a corner. The Indians, who were a bit slow of the blocks after the break, were left shocked after Lee Tai-Lin headed in the equalizer for Chinese Taipei through the corner, with 54 minutes in the clock. The goal seemed to evoke an immediate response from the Indian side, with skipper Sunil Chhetri almost scoring from distance a couple of minutes later. The striker’s effort from outside the penalty box went over the crossbar, after he had evaded a couple of defenders to create space for himself for the shot. However, the Chinese Taipei side continued their offensive dominance in the second half for the next few minutes, with India not seeing much of the ball for some time.
The introduction of Syed Rahim Nabi, India’s player of the year for 2012, in the 68th minute added some much-needed fresh legs to the Indian attack. The Taiwanese side looked content with holding India, and adopted a conservative approach in the last quarter of the game. The stubborn defending of the Taiwanese side seemed to keep India at bay for quite some time. Wim Koevermans, perhaps alarmed by India’s failure to break down Chinese Taipei’s defence, brought on another striker in the form of Robin Singh in the 82nd minute to try and find a winner for the blue tigers. Robin Singh, who has been anything but phenomenal with his club East Bengal, justified Koevermans’s gamble to bring him into the game, when he headed home a beautiful Rahim Nabi cross from the right wing a minute into injury time to give India a 2-1 lead late into the game. There was no coming back for the impressive Chinese Taipei side this late into the game, as India snatched victory in a dramatic fashion to kick start their qualifying campaign on a high note.
The game highlighted some key weaknesses in the Indian team. Chinese Taipei’s equalizer, albeit well-taken by Lee Tai Lin, exposed India’s weakness in set-piece situations. Moreover, Taiwan’s counterattacks almost caught out India on many occasions, and had it not been due to some brilliant saves by Indian custodian Subrata Paul, the scoreline may have been a bit different. On the other hand, India’s attack looked a bit toothless in front of the goal on many occasions. With Taiwan adopting a more compact approach in the later part of the game, India failed to create too many goalscoring opportunities. Despite having thirteen corners throughout the game, the blue tigers failed to significantly trouble the Taiwanese defence from these situations.
With two important games to come against minnows Guam and hosts Myanmar on Monday and Wednesday, respectively, Wim Koevermans must address the issues affecting his team, and ensure that his boys try to cut down on their mistakes in the next couple of encounters in order to guarantee themselves a place in the next year’s edition of the AFC Challenge Cup.
India: Subrata Paul, Nirmal Chettri, Gouramangi Singh, Raju Gaikwad, Gurjinder Kumar Singh, Mehtab Hussain, Lenny Rodriues, Francis Fernandes (Syed Rahim Nabi – 68th), Jewel Raja Shaikh (Robin Singh – 82nd), Clifford Miranda, Sunil Chhetri [C].
Chinese Taipei: Lu Kun-Chi, Lin Cheng-Yi, Lee Meng-Chian [C], Chen Yi-Wei, Lee Tai-Lin, Huang Kai-Jun, Feng Pao-Hsing, Su De-Cai (Sai Tsheng-An – 69th), Chan Che-Yuan (Chang Fu-Hsiang – 67th), Tai Hung-Hsu (He Ming-Chan – 46th), Chiu I-Huan.
Written by TheHardTackle’s Guest Author Bhargab Sarmah
Follow the Author on Twitter – @BhargabSarmah