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AFC Asian Cup India vs Uzbekistan: What went wrong for Blue Tigers

India suffered a humbling defeat at the hands of Uzbekistan in the ongoing AFC Asian Cup. Here's a breakdown of what went wrong for India.

AFC Asian Cup India vs Uzbekistan: What went wrong for Blue Tigers

Uzbekistan beat India


John Mathew

Updated: 22 Jan 2024 6:09 AM GMT

If it was a boxing bout, the announcer would've said — 'and still, the undefeated, the undisputed Uzbeks'. But, it was not a boxing bout in a ring, it was a football match and hence the scorecard read 3-0 at the end. India suffered yet another loss to the Uzbeks as the White Wolves kept their record of having never been beaten by the Blue Tigers safe.

The loss was not a surprising result to anyone aware of the Uzbek's quality, although how it unfolded was indeed painful for the fans. While the Uzbek's draw against Syria raised hopes; the reality is that the result was always misleading.

India has a technical, tactical and experiential gap with the central Asian side that is yet to be bridged. They are the bridesmaids of Asian football and India is someone who gets an occasional invitation with the big boys of Asia. That difference in pedigree was well on show.

Igor Stimac's line-up was always interesting, but with rather expected changes as he said in his pre-game press conference. The Croat decided to bring in three changes to the side that lost to Australia. Akash Mishra came in for Subhashish Bose in the full-back position, Anirudh Thapa came back into the line-up in place of Deepak Tangri and Mahesh Singh came in to replace the sidelined Lallianzuala Chhangte.

Meanwhile, Igor's counterpart for the game — Srecko Katanec, went with what was totally different from their game against Syria. His side went from a 3-4-2-1 on paper to an outright 4-2-3-1 with Sergeev back in leading the line and an exciting prospect in Abbosbek Fayzullayev starting in behind him. As a result, Urunov was back on the wings and suddenly all Uzbek players seemed to be in their favoured and defined roles as per their system. All that was left of them was its fine execution.

An aspect of football games that's maybe not talked about enough is game state. It simply refers to the timing of key moments in the game and the changes it brings based on when it happens. For example, a goal to take the lead at the 10th minute is mathematically the same as taking a 1-0 lead at the 80th minute; but the variations it can cause in the mindset, intensity and tactical framework of either side is vastly different.

India (in blue) v Uzbekistan (in white) Attacking Momentum (Image via @totalf0otball on X)

And hence, such was the criticality of not conceding first to a better opponent. Against Australia, India weathered the storm for almost three-quarters of an hour before the first defensive lapse led to the first goal.

Against Uzbekistan, it took just 227 seconds for India to concede the first blow. In other words, from the fourth minute onward - the underdogs were behind against the better side; and for a team that held Australia shackled for so long, it must've been disappointing to go behind so soon. A goal in the 4th minute meant the scores were already not level, even before either side could really settle in and get a feel of the game and their opponent.

The team was definitely a more offensively proactive one from that took to the field against the Socceroos, but football requires you to be proactive on the ball and without it, and India was not proactive often without the ball.

The compactness and shrewd defensive acumen showed in the first game all seemed to have disappeared. Uzbek full-backs were obviously spotted to be highly involved in their attacks and often provided the width.

In the instance of the first goal this came into limelight, the Uzbek left-back was never tracked, by anyone of the Indian contingent. The whole sequence of the first goal was a defensive calamity with key Uzbek players (such as the first goalscorer, Fayzullaev) left unmarked or players finding themselves in physically inferior situations (A 167cm tall Naorem Mahesh finding a 182cm tall Shukurov vying with him for an aerial ball), before finding its way back to the Uzbek wonderkid who calmly headed over Gurpreet and into the net. Jhingan seemed helplessly lost in 2 worlds in that move, but how can one defender mark out 2 players at once?

And India suffered a barrage of Uzbek onslaught from then, till the 18th minute - when Uzbekistan found the net for the second time. And again through a defensive lapse as Rahul Bheke was robbed by Fayzullaev on the halfway line and without Nikhil Poojary in his defensive area, as he had pushed forward to attack, suddenly India found themselves in a transition, without having many players at the back.

And hence the play went on which ended up in the Blue Tigers's net. Although, yet again the goal was quite symbolic. While Uzbekistan and their players seemed to have a lot of time even when in small, tight spaces; India flustered at even the slightest pressure from the Uzbek backline.

That transition in-fact arose from a miscontrolled ball by Manvir who could not receive a bobbly pass by Jhingan - a situation which Nasrulloev again made the most out of, quickly finding Masharipov free, with Nikhil Poojari still meters up-front.

After trailing 0-2, India started gaining more ground. Mostly through the right, Manvir's hold-up and Nikhil's overlap found the latter in space, and his cross was met by Chhetri, whose pass to Manvir was intercepted. That was India's first touch of the ball inside the Uzbek box and it took 21 minutes for that to arrive.

Shortly after, in the 28th minute, India had their first shot through set-piece delivery which was met by Akash Mishra but went off-target. Slowly, the build-up structure gained clarity. The CB's split wide, the full-backs pushed on further and most importantly Thapa began to play in a more box-to-box role, dropping and aiding in build-up rather than being an outright #10, which was the case at the initial stages.

From then on, India were on the ascendancy for a good 20 minutes. It was the best-attacking performance seen by the Blue Tigers in the Asian Cup 2023 so far.

From build-up through the midfield, disrupting the Uzbek press to find the wide men, especially down the right India suddenly seemed threatening. The press got better and the Wolves' pack was made hesitant. India matched their own entire shots tally from the Australia game, in those 20 minutes, albeit without making any of it count.

But Uzbekistan did. The Indian flame was just starting to burn, but it was extinguished quickly. One switch by Sayfiev to find Masharipov, which broke the Indian press was all it took to put India back in confusion mode. Seconds later, the same Sayfiev came forward (as Uzbek full-backs do) and delivered a dime of a cross into the box, for his partner Nasrullaev to finish off. The game was everything but done in 45 minutes of play as the Uzbeks took a 3-0 lead into half-time.

The second half proved to be of a similar storyline. India hit the post and had some of the best chances of the tournament so far, but sadly to no luck. The scoreboard granted much luxury to the Uzbeks who could simply kill the next 45 minutes and get a 3-0 win, so they did. Rahul KP came on in place of Manvir and the wing seemed much more lively. Brandon Fernandes came in at the 70th for Thapa and suited the #10 role better. But none of it mattered on the scoreboard.

Image via @afcasiancup on X

At the end of the day, it is a tough loss. Considering the defending against Australia, the team did regress; but on the flip side, offensively it was an improvement, even if so slightly. It was a test, and just like the Australian test, this too has pointed out where India lacks and why they are not at the level to compete with the elites of Asia yet.

Tactically, technically, and experientially- we are still behind and it is about time that we think about the future rather than rely on what's passed. With Syria coming up shortly, it is surely do or die for India to have any chance of qualification now.

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