June 8, 2023

Great Indian Mutiny

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India hurt Bala Devi vacancy as Chinese Taipei team banged in the Asian Cup

Perhaps Boichung Bhutia is speaking from personal experience.

In 2011, as India prepared for their first men’s Asian Cup appearance in more than three decades, the former captain watched from the bench recovering from injury. Bhutia was the best goal scorer in the country and the most influential player in the dressing room, eventually playing only a few minutes in the group stage match but his experience was much missed as India retreated without making an impact.

Now, as the women’s team returns to the Continental level almost 20 years later, they find themselves in a similar situation. India is without its star striker and the focal point of its attack, Nangom Bala Devi, is the all-time leading scorer in the country with 52 goals in 58 matches.

Without the former Glasgow Rangers striker, Iran made a disappointing goalless draw in their first Asian Cup match on Thursday. It was a dominant performance and India created 24 goal chances, three times more than Iran. But only 5 of them hit the target and none of them were good enough to score.

“Perhaps in retrospect, the previous experience of a Bala Devi could have been useful,” Bhutia was quoted as saying by the Indian Football Federation. “But injuries are an integral part of football and I hope others will fill the void.”

Sunday’s game against Chinese Taipei will be a decisive situation in practice. With a 4-0 win over Taipei on Thursday, the draw will be crucial in determining the team that will be in second place following eight-time Asian champions China. The top two teams in the three divisions and the third place team advance to the quarterfinals.

Devi, the first Indian player to score in the European League, suffered an ACL injury while playing for the Rangers last season. He returned to India to complete his rehab, thus ending his time with the Scottish club and expelling him to the Asian Cup as well.

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However, the absence of the 31-year-old has hampered the team’s preparation for the Asian Cup. One of the three Indian women who have played abroad in recent years (the other two are goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan (West Ham United) and right-back Talima Zipper (Canadian college football)) is Devi’s influential youngster, averaging 23 years old, and she goes off the field.

In his absence, head coach Thomas Tennerby created an attack around Manisha Kalyan, Pierre Saxa, Sandhya Ranganathan and Grace Tongmey. Against Iran, the Quartet routinely entered the scoring stages and moved in time to go behind the defense. Sometimes they were unfortunate, but on one occasion the strikers did not have the mix to finish a play.

Most of this may be due to inexperience and consistent play time. After taking charge of Tennerby last August, the AIFF organized long training camps and friendly matches to prepare the team for the Asian Cup. The epidemic thwarted the team’s plan to play a few more matches shortly before the match. But no friendly match can prepare them for the nerves and stress that are by-products of a big match.

This was evident in the opening 20 minutes against Iran, where the Indian players appeared a little over the top, placing 70th in the world rankings just below 25 for their opponents, a place to mount freedom and multiple attacks.

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Once the team was established, they controlled the game better. Tennerby will be reassured by the confidence his players show in the ball and the brilliant way they ran with it. The only thing that escaped them that night was the third silence of the attack.

Those who watched the team play testify that Xaxa, Dangmei and other strikers can deliver more than they did against Iran. However, as he points out after the first game of tennis, he may be tempted to turn things around. “I think we have a solid defense. We defended well every time they tried to fight back. Some changes in our attack and we were ready for our next enemy,” Sweden said.

A win over world-ranked Taipei, ranked 39th, would take world-ranked India 55 to a quarter-final draw that would slip them into at least two top teams. Defeated Iran, a defeat would severely affect their chances.

India last played Taipei, winning 1-0 in a friendly last October, turning striker Renu’s goal into the winner. When the two sides meet on Sunday, the onus will fall on the attacking quartet again to see that Bala does not miss.

India vs Chinese Taipei, 7:30 pm, live on Eurosport