Friendly Banners at Kochi was a welcome sight for Palestinians

International football returned to God’s own country after a long break and Queen of Arabian Sea was shining bright as the people gathered for the much awaited occasion marked their arrival in style. Friendly and supportive banners for the war affected visitors became a testament to the love for the beautiful game. Flags, banners, bands were in full flow and noise in the stadium was deafening. Sadly, the enthusiasm shown throughout by football loving Kerala fans was not matched by Indian players as the national team vanished in the second half and succumbed to a 2-4 defeat.

A defeat against a higher ranked opponent is not a bad sign on first look. Taking a close look will take us near reality, India is ranked 166 in FIFA Ranking while Palestine finds themselves in 152nd position. Is it that bad to loose to an opposition who is ranked just 14 positions ahead of the Indian Football Team? There lies the catch as it wasn’t the strongest team of the West Asia let alone the continent, many regulars were rested or left behind and in effect and it was Palestine’s second string steam. In effect India lost to a second string team of a nation who is ranked marginally ahead and that too in their own backyard.

What happened in the match can be anyone’s guess, India played well in the first half and disappeared after the break. India went with a lead of 2-1 at the break and they came back clueless to lose the game by 2-4. How India fared in the match and what went wrong?

Where did it go wrong for India and Wim Koevermans?

Squad Selection

Whether India got their backline spot on is the first question ringing in everyone’s mind after witnessing the pathetic and error prone display of  Denzil Franco, Gournamngi Singh, Raju Gaekwad and Sandip Nandy. Was it the best possible option for Wim Koevermans based on form? I-League has exposed the vulnerabilities of these players in and out, some of those who have played consistently had missed the flight to Kochi. The most notable absentees in the squad were Arnab Mondal, Anwar Ali and Dhanraj Ravanan. No wonder India’s central defence looked vulnerable when called upon?

In comparison Indian midfield was upto the task and generally played well. There might be calls for Sanjhu Pradhan’s and Peter Carvalho’s inclusion but overall Wim Koevermans got it right. The performance of Alwyn George and Francis Fernandez are a testament to the fact.

But we need to repeat same questions when it comes to the strike force. Did Manandeep Singh deserved a call up to the squad? Even though Joaquim Abaranches missed out due to an injury, many might feel that Joaquim, Gabriel Fernandez or Subhash Singh should have made it ahead of East Bengal’s bench warmer. One cannot question the call up of Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetrri but he looked off colour and proved that he badly needed first team action in Portugal. He might be training in superior levels, but that alone is not sufficient as players need playing time and there is no equivalent for that. Sunil Chhetri should realize this at the earliest and choose a club where he will get to play regularly.

Is Sandip Nandy India’s best bet at 38 years!

A 38 year old Goal keeper Sandip Nandy was reinstated between the bars for this friendly. Is he a cut above the rest of the custodians? Is there any long term vision or planning from the team’s think tank? Subrata Pal has been inconsistent this year so the decision to drop him was understandable, still there were likes of Karanjit Singh and Subhashish Roy Choudhary who could have done a better job. Sandip Nandy made a number of good saves in the first half, the sweeper shot might have reminded us of Hugo Lloris, in that case the first goal conceded should give the memory of Gomes. In all fairness to Sandip’s good work in the first half, he missed a regulation save and let the whole team down.

Analyzing the players

India's starting line-up against Palestine.

India’s starting line-up against Palestine.

Gourmangi Singh has been inconsistent so far in this year’s campaign and he was paired with Raju Gaekwad who is not even a regular for his club side! If the pairing was error prone, so was their display against an impressive Palestine attack. Denzil Franco at right back did make some sense when compared to Wim Koevermans central defensive selection but is he the best right back in India? Wasn’t Nirmal Chhetri a better option at the right hand side of defence where India got beaten left, right and center?

AIFF player of the year Syed Rahim Nabi was the best defender among the lot, he is really good when going forward but looked a little shaky in defence when surrounded by error prone players. There are a lot of holes in India’s defence and Wim Koevermans needs to address it quickly if India are to make a progress.

On the other hand the midfielders were impressive. Francis Fernandez and Alwyn George looked lively and posed a threat to the opposition very early in the match. Mehtab and Lenny Rodriguez provided a good cover to defence in the first half but ran out of steam to prevent opposition attacks in the latter parts of the game. Clifford Miranda’s set piece delivery and his experience helped him to get the nod above an inform Vineeth CK and he did justice to his selection with a goal.

At the same time, Indians were too late in ringing the changes. There were too many tired legs on the pitch during the second half. Vineeth CK almost scored in his 5+ minutes comeo and was very impressive. An earlier introduction for him might have helped the team’s cause. Arata Izumi, who was composed on the ball after coming in, and Jewel Raja didn’t get enough time to make an impact either. In a friendly where a team can change the entire set of players Wim Koevermans failed to make use of it.

Indian strike force looked off-color, especially team Captain Sunil Chhetri lacked the cutting edge. Strikers need to be on their toes and can turn the game around in the flash of a second. Neither Sunil Chhetri nor Manandeep Singh gave the cutting edge to take the Blue Tigers home.  The crowd was right behind the Indian Football Team, but they failed to live upto the expectation.

Second Half performance let the team down

It was a tale of two halves for the Indian Team. After dominating the first half, Indians disappeared in the second half to relinquish the lead and the match to the opposition. According to coach Wim Koevermans India looked toothless in the second half. India clearly lacked the stamina and fighting spirit to match the second string Palestinian side in the second half and that paved the way for a disappointing loss. Throughout the match Ashraf Numan Alfawaghra terrorized Denzil Franco and it’s a mystery how the Indian right back remained in the pitch till the final whistle.

Alwyn George and Francis Fernandez

Alwyn George was really impressive upfront and his clever movements created problems for the Palestinian defence. Alwyn stretched Palestine defence with his off the ball movements and was always available as the extra man to play the short passing game. India need to groom his talents properly and can unearth a real gem of a footballer who can change the face of the game in a cricket mad nation. Francis Fernandez got the better of Palestine right back in the early exchanges and as a coincidence India’s main threat came from the right wing through out the first half. Francis Fernandez has pace and trickery but needs to work on his end product so that his threat can multiply.

Alwyn Grorge and Francis Fernandez were the biggest positives for India in this friendly, the fans might be hoping for more such friendlies so that the team can learn from their mistakes and come back better than ever.