Blasphemous. Robbed. Rigged. Corrupt.

These were some of the words in the minds of the Indian football fans as our blue tigers went down to Malaysia in the Merdeka cup semi final. Palestine had earlier withdrawn from the tournament owing to the ongoing war with Israel. It was a great opportunity for India to win their third trophy of 2023, but it wasn't to be. And it goes without saying, the result was partly down to our mistakes as well. Let's break down everything that went through on Friday.


India started the match without Anwar Ali in the defense due to injury. It meant Mehtab Singh was partnered up with Sandesh Jhingan, with Gurpreet in goal and Akash Mishra and Nikhil Poojary being the full backs. The midfield was an interesting choice, as coach Stimach left out Thapa on the bench, opting for Suresh and Rohit Kumar along with Sahal. Upfront were Sunil Chhetri, Naorem Mahesh and Lalrinzuala Chhangte.


The team selection was marred with some controversy even before the match began. And why not? Apuia is one of the best Indian midfielders at the moment. Still young, he has a bright future ahead of him, playing regularly for Mumbai City FC. When Jeakson was injured, everyone expected coach Stimac to pick Apuia as his replacement. But it wasn't to be the case. And it hurt this team badly.
From the get go, India tried to keep the ball. The age old tradition of blasting the ball upfront for Sunil Chhetri to chase down and do some magic was gone. Instead the new crop of players like Mahesh, Chhangte and Sahal took the onus upon themselves. Sahal was the first to come close when his shot hit the post. India looked to play with urgency, quickly distributing the ball to the wide areas. But, where was the midfield? With Thapa missing, the midfield lacked any kind of commanding nature that this game required. Sahal's true potential has been unlocked this season only because he can go upfront at will due to a strong defensive cover that Mohun Bagan provides. India couldn't do it, the defensive shape being broken at most times. And it hurt India in the 7th minute itself.
Malaysia had a corner, a poorly taken one. The ball was not aptly cleared with confusion between the Indian players. The ball fell kindly to Dion Cools, the Malaysian number 21, who slotted it home from close range. 1-0 in front of a roaring crowd of the Malaysian Ultras. The error solely down to poor defending once again from the Indian team. One might ask, why didn't Lalchungnunga start over Mehtab? They had played together at the recently concluded Asian Games, and he was solid at the back. Another piece of poor team selection from Stimac.

India didn't give up though and pushed hard for the equalizer. And it payed dividends. Chhangte made the overlap on the right putting in a cross which was met by Sahal. Sahal flicked the ball in the air which was met first time by Mahesh who volleyed it like a rocket in the back of the net. The players were ecstatic with self belief. The Indian fans who had made the journey were happy. 1-1. Game on.


The game was even stevens for a while, until the referee started playing his own game. A penalty was awarded to Malaysia in the 20th minute for a tackle by Nikhil, The tackle looked soft enough and never looked like a foul to begin with, leave aside a penalty. The players were furious, the home fans jubilant. Arif Aiman Hanapi converted from the spot. 2-1 Malaysia.
India conceded yet again just before the half time. The Indian defense was cut open again after a poor back pass from Mahesh for Mehtab was misread by the Indian defender. Malaysia pressed high and latched onto the ball and scored through Faisal Halim. 3-1. The half time just couldn't come sooner for the Indian team.

Most Indian teams of the past would have given up at half time. And who could blame them? Playing away in front of a fully packed stadium, being 3-1 down at half time. Any other team would have gone defensive and tried not to concede any more goals. But not this team. This is the new Indian team. And it showed. The Indian team fought back like real tigers and got one back in the 51st minute. And who else? The same Sunil Chhetri, yet again. Mahesh was instrumental yet again as he put a delicious ball in for Chhangte, who put the ball on a plate for Chhetri to score a tap in. 3-2.


Can India make a come back?
They did. Believe me, believe the Indian fans, believe everyone who has eyes. India scored in the 56th minute. Sahal did brilliantly to retain the ball in the box before laying it for Chhangte whose shot from close range beat the keeper. The ball had crossed the line before it was being cleared, but the referees refused to give the goal. The Indian fans were stunned, the players and the bench were livid. What is the use of holding international tournaments if the referees are this poor? If the ltimate goal is to crown Malaysia the champions, then why even hold these events?
To put it in on word, the refereeing was as bad as the pitch condition. They can fill up their stadium with ultras, but they can't provide a decent enough pitch to play football? The pitch was coming off from several areas in patches. The players were loosing their footing, slipping on a number of occasions. It's a boon that none of our players were seriously injured. Even Calcutta Football League has better pitches on rainy match days. Shambolic from the Malaysian Football federation.
Malaysia added salt to the Indian wounds as the scored in the 60th minute via La'Vere Corbin-Ong. A slick move which was equally aided by some poor defending yet again from the Indian team. 4-2 Malaysia. 
India never gave up though and completely dominated the game in the last 20 odd minutes, launching attack after attack. Sahal had a few shots but couldn't keep them on target, Mahesh tried his luck, Chhangte hit the woodwork, Liston caused problems for the Malaysians. Watching this Indian team attack is a joy, with the fluidity and understanding between them the key. One only hopes this chemistry grows and grows more as the AFC Asian cup looms closer with each passing day.
The game ended 4-2 for Malaysia, and India were knocked out. No more international matches now as Palestine had withdrawn from the tournament.



India's attack was really impressive. Mahesh and Chhangte looked dangerous everytime they got the ball. Be it their technique, or pace or vision, both were in their element yesterday. 

Captain Chhetri scored again. Granted it was a tap in, but is scoring tap ins that easy? I beg to differ. The ability to position yourself, to anticipate where the ball will fall to so that you can score the goal easily, this is a trait achieved by having years and years of experience and hardwork. 

The goal scoring chances India created almost resulted in goals, which for many, should be a positive none the less.


Everything else. Let's begin;

1) The Defense was just shambolic. If your national team defenders can't even maintain a proper shape, a proper backline and concentrate on their job, which is to defend, for the whole of 90 minutes, then there should be some serious questions asked. Mehtab was bad, he never had the commanding presence and the aura of Anwar, neither does he have his ball playing ability. The only player who comes close to Anwar in the current Indian circuit is Sana Singh, but he wasn't in the squad.

The full backs were worse, Nikhil had an off day giving away the penalty, while Akash Mishra was a shadow of his old self at Hyderabad. The old menacing Akash with pin point crosses and inverted runs into the box was no where to be seen.

All the goals India conceded were from defensive lapses. It was like we gifted the goals to Malaysia. Granted the officiating and pitch condition was poor, but isn't it similar in the leagues here too? Should that be an excuse for us to concede 4 goals against a lower ranked team?

2) The Midfield was dead. Suresh tried his best, but what the team lacked was an Anirudh Thapa and Jeakson beside him. Rohit Kumar didn't do much, it was almost like he was invisible on the pitch. The only saving grace, Sahal Abdul Samad came close on a number of occasions, notably hitting the Malaysian post in the second minute itself. But luck wasn't on his side as he also blasted a few over the bar. It was his brilliant play which resulted in India's third goal which was stolen away.

3) The Attack, but wait, wasn't our attack the bright point? Yes and no. Yes, because it was the only area where we looked dangerous. No because we don't have another striker beside Sunil Chhetri. But is it all down to ISL clubs playing foreign strikers? Again, yes and no. Granted ISL teams play foreign strikers which has resulted in a lot of Indian strikers shifting to the wings to get more game time. But, is it written in a doctrine that Stimach can't select players from the I-league? David from Mohammedan FC, Bidyasagar from Kerala Blasters are two of the few names who could have been given exposure at the Merdeka Cup. You may ask, but Bidya doesn't even play for his club that often. I'll give a simple answer, doesn't Southgate pick Harry Maguire on a regular basis even though he doesn't play for his club that often? If foreign nations can do it, why can't Stimach take this chance? Why stagnate the pool of Indian strikers to a handful when there is already a dearth of strikers in the country?

4) Igor Stimach needs to get his act together. He has full support of the fans and we all want him to lead Indian team to new heights. But, why does he simply ignore players from the I-League? Leave I-league, why not pick Apuia? One of the finest midfielders of India in the recent times, Apuia deserves to be picked. Phalguni from North East United FC has also been in great form. How can he justify picking Mehtab and Rohit? 

Hard questions need to be asked if we are to improve. Social media presence won't lead us to the world cup. Ground results will.


The Indian attacking was a treat to watch. Mahesh was in his zone and he was equally complemented by Lalrinzuala Chhangte. Both of the them cause menace for the Malaysian defenders throughout the game. Sunil Chhetri scored a goal which was primarily down to the work done by the former two.
Sahal looked good in phases but couldn't score the illusive goal. He is a special player and needs the freedom to express his art. The sooner Stimac understands this, the better it will be for the national team. 
Liston got a chance to shine and he tried his best causing problems for the Malaysians, but it just wasn't meant to be.

Its high time Stimac understands that he is the national team coach and not of a club. Why has he exiled Apuia? Can't they just sort out their issues like two sensible adults, for the betterment of the national team? India isn't blessed with a talent supply line like Europe, so it will be wise to settle the differences asap.
The defense was shambolic, each one of them. Sandesh was slow, Mehtab perplexed, Akash lost, and Nikhil had an off day. The defensive shape was never maintained well enough, with lack of co-ordination clearly visible. It's disturbing to see India playing like this so close to the Asia Cup and the World Cup Qualifiers. 
The midfield just didn't exist. Rohit did absolute nothing, while Suresh tried his best but couldn't do it all by himself. The Indian midfield was over powered again and again by the waves of the Malaysian attacks and they crumbled like a pack of cards.

Ultimately, we never know what could have happened if the third goal was not disallowed unfairly. Maybe India would have won, maybe India would have lost any ways. But nothing should justify the fact that we are still miles away from even coming close to our rivals in our Asian Cup group. Australia and Uzbekistan regularly compete with the world's elite. Stimac has un uphill task to make this team ready to face the challenges up ahead. Can he succeed? Only time will tell.

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