India were the victors of the Tri-Nation friendly tournament after defeating Myanmar (1-0) and the Kyrgyz Republic (2-0) at the Khuman Lampak stadium in Manipur. The hosts provided plenty to cheer for the packed stands that featured crowds numbering in about 30,000 people during both games.
With Igor Stimac and the AIFF aiming to maximise every international window in preparation for the Asian Cup in 2024, here are the takeaways from this round of fixtures:
Cautious optimism after winning streak
India's victories in this round of fixtures made it five wins in a row at home, which is at the very least, impressive on paper. Myanmar, ranked 159 to India's 106, were expectedly easy opponents, while the Kyrgyz Republic's higher ranking of 94 proved to be a misnomer as India were only occasionally troubled in their victory. It's a long way away from the 1-2 loss to them in 2018, with India now a more coherent outfit under Stimac.
The qualifiers in June of last year raised expectations of this side, who can now be trusted to beat the teams they ought to beat (however laboured the victories). Yet, with India in Pot 4 of the Asian Cup draw and Bahrain, Jordan, Kyrgyz Republic, Vietnam, Lebanon, Palestine in Pot 3 -- it raises hopes that perhaps Stimac can sign off with an improbable result in 2024.
Scoring remains an issue
India were 'champions' of the tournament, but the truth of the matter is that two of India's three goals came from set-pieces (a Sunil Chhetri penalty and a Sandesh Jhingan volley, of all things), while the only open-play goal from Anirudh Thapa came from a fortunate deflection in the Myanmar defence.
India struggled to put away chances, with Chhetri missing his fair share en route to racking up his 85th international goal. He's fifteen away from joining Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ali Daei as the only men in the history of football to score a century of goals, but it seems a tall ask after his performances over the last week. Stimac had earlier bemoaned ISL clubs not affording the likes of Manvir Singh and Ishan Pandita opportunities as central strikers, but in a friendly tournament that mattered little, failed to do so himself. There was nothing new to learn about Chhetri -- this was the perfect opportunity to try Manvir as a starting centre-forward.
Depth of options aplenty
The conversation around Indian diaspora being able to represent their country has risen once more, but it ignores the fact that the Indian squad is now brimming with possibilities. There are two options in every position without a drop in quality, and those options bring differing specialisations to the table as well. Stimac employed 23 of his 24-man squad over both games (Phurba Lachenpa the only one to miss out), yet the players plugged into their roles on the pitch without missing a beat.
Debutants Mehtab Singh, Ritwik Das and Naorem Mahesh Singh did their burgeoning reputations no harm, with the latter impressing in his cameos as well as winning a penalty against the Kyrgyz Republic. It's even more impressive when you consider Sivasakthi Narayanan, Glan Martins and Apuia were absent from the squad due to injuries -- with the trio likely to have had starting roles.
With another six months of football to go before the Asian Cup, the youngsters making their way into this squad are only likely to improve, which bodes well for the future.
Dear Manipur, you were amazing. Your love, hospitality, and support were all felt in big measure. Hope the two wins over the week gave you some joy back as well. pic.twitter.com/fyzZgVG7ue
- Sunil Chhetri (@chetrisunil11) March 28, 2023
Despite an overall positive display, there were a couple of muted performances on show -- mostly from the players who featured in the ISL playoffs. Akash Mishra, in particular, looked quite fatigued, not his usual bombing-up-and-down-the-pitch self in either game -- which made Roshan Singh's brief appearance all that more baffling.
Lallianzuala Chhangte, fresh from an ISL season where he was the MVP, was decent, without setting the pitch alight as was expected. Stimac noted that the Asian Cup would take place mid-season next year, which would interfere with his preparations. Yet, there's a case to be made that fresher players would shine, especially without a gruelling season under their belt. It was the case for Thapa, who did not feature in the playoffs, and in addition was playing in a more attacking role, looking far better in an Indian shirt than he did in a Chennaiyin FC shirt over the last six months.
Imphal did not disappoint
Despite Stimac alluding to the crowds at the Khuman Lampak stadium being a bit 'sleepy' in the first game, the packed stands were a beautiful sight to behold, as noted by the players themselves. A boisterous crowd can inspire results and performances beyond players' abilities, and if India are to progress, capitalising on the pockets of India where the beautiful game reigns supreme is paramount.