India's AFC Asian Cup opener a tale of missed chances

India's Manisha Kalyan in action against Iran. Adam Aidil/AFC

Even before kick-off, it felt like something was lacking in the Indian team when they named the line-ups for the host's opening AFC Women's Asian Cup match against Iran. Head coach Thomas Dennerby had left out the seasoned Kamala Devi and Dangmei Grace from the starting XI, opting for a young attack.

At the end of the 95 minutes of play, it was very evident what was lacking - the finishing touch.

Iran, making their debut at this stage, held the hosts to a goalless draw on Thursday despite India dominating for the most part with several clear shots at the target. Dennerby's fluid frontline and midfield created a number of chances but were unable to convert as they took just one point from a game they were expected, as well as poised, to win.

It was a match characterised by missed chances as Iran, playing with the fortitude of veterans, also carved out some moments where they got close to scoring, testing India's defence. Barring the one sensational save from Iran goalkeeper Zohreh Koudaei, most shots touched or sailed over the crossbar for both teams. India had five shots on target, all of which could have been goals on a good day. But the narrow misses showed that other than the posts, India were missing a clinical edge as well.

The missed chances were not all on field though, as India's starting XI and substitutions raised questions.

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Dennerby, the former junior coach, has banked on youth with this squad and stuck to the belief with Manisha Kalyan and Pyari Xaxa named as forwards with a midfield of Indumathi Kathiresan, Sanju Yadav, Ratanbala Devi, Anju Tamang and Sandhiya Ranganathan. But in the absence of India's best striker Bala Devi, who missed out due to an ACL injury, India needed all the experience they could get in front of the goal. This is where Kamala Devi's exclusion, perhaps the most reliable scorer after Bala Devi in the current system, felt like a big miss.

Dennerby explained her absence saying, "Kamala is definitely a very good player. She came into the squad a little bit late. We are trying to find out from each and every game who suits where. This time we felt that we want more speed."

The intention was to attack with speed, which worked on paper with 64% ball possession and 24 shots to Iran's 8. (5 to 1 in shots on target) But it didn't translate to goals and at this level, that is the number that matters.

This also makes his choice to start Sandhiya over Grace questionable. Both are players in good touch, with Grace scoring against Venezuela last month while the Tamil Nadu striker was the top-scorer in the recently-concluded 2021 senior Nationals. But the Manipur winger is more experienced and has the versatility to stay on the ball longer.

This was further illustrated with how the energy changed in the second half, which also coincided with Grace's introduction. She played higher up the pitch, dribbled past the defence and created space and opened up play. This resulted in the best chance of the match in the 77th minute.

Manisha Panna set up a cross but Grace's close-range header was pushed off target in a one-handed save while the rebound veered off course. The striker was distraught, and one can only imagine if she had had more time, could things have been different?

The same can't be said of the direct shots Manisha, Pyari and Indumathi missed... some with the narrowest of margins, others deflections of the edges. All three were heavily involved with the ball, with the 20-year-old Manisha showing the speed and skill which makes her so highly rated. But it was the small space between crafting and finesse that seemed to be amiss, much like Grace's agonising miss - which should rightly be filed under Koudaei's excellent save - where a swift chance of a rebound was floundered.

It is this small moments that can show a bigger picture. The Indian squad has been in national camps and exposure tours for a good part of last year, but they also missed the Indian Women's League (not held) and senior Nationals in the time. Would regular game time in competitive matches have helped fine-tune these instincts? It's something to be noted, certainly.

Dennerby, who said he was disappointed with the draw as his team was better technically, also spoke about the small moments that need improvement. "We have to execute chances, like what you are doing daily in training. If you have the chance, take it quickly, play the first touch if possible. We were a little bit slow and gave the defenders the chance to come back. This was the first game, hopefully they feel more comfortable next time," the coach said.

India have two days to fine tune these aspects before they take on Chinese Taipei on Sunday - who lost to dominant China 4-0 in the opener - in a must-win game to have hopes of progressing beyond the group stage. The team will take heart from the fact that they had beaten them 1-0 in a friendly last October. But as their opener against Iran showed, the cauldron of a completive match is a different ball game.