CHENNAI: The bubble, it seems, has burst. After fighting till the end against Oman and holding Asian champions Qatar to a 0-0 draw, there were some who believed that Indian football had actually progressed to a different tier. Gone were the days when our level was the SAFF Cup and not far were those when India meant something on the Asian scene.
On Tuesday, a 1-1 draw with Bangladesh in Kolkata — one that the hosts were lucky to salvage — called into question all that assumptions. This was a team that India regularly beat at its worst, a team that is 80 spots behind in rankings. This was, rather arrogantly, assumed to be the easiest match of the campaign. Yet, on Tuesday at Salt Lake Stadium, Bangladesh would have walked off disappointed that they did not have all three points.
For long parts of the game, it looked like the visitors would take back exactly that. A Gurpreet Singh Sandhu error allowed Saad Uddin to tap the ball home into an empty net, just as the first half was coming to a close. The Bengaluru FC keeper rushed out for a long ball and ended up completely missing it. Throughout the second half, India attacked, but without the potency required to rustle the net. It was not until the 88th minute that Adil Khan propelled a powerful header into the net off a corner and salvaged something for India from an awful day out.
The shaky defence can be explained away by Sandesh Jhingan’s absence and a rare off-day for Gurpreet in national colours, but the team’s return to hoofing the ball aimlessly is mystifying.
In coach Igor Stimac’s short reign, India had made strides in adopting a passing game, but none of that progress was visible at the grand venue in Kolkata.
The result virtually ensures India have no chance of progressing to the next round of World Cup qualifiers — only wins in remaining matches over Afghanistan and Bangladesh and a good result against one of Oman or Qatar will ensure that.
But more significantly, it means losses to Afghanistan and in the return leg away at Bangladesh could consign the team to the bottom spot.