India's baby steps matter just as much as the hard knocks
Indian football fans are not likely to forget October 9, 2017.
India lost 2-1 to Colombia, scoring their first goal at a FIFA tournament through Jeakson Singh, but more importantly, they put in an improved performance since their 3-0 defeat to USA in their first group game.
Full-backs put in a clean performance
While goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh was a commanding presence for the second game in a row, it was the return of right-back Boris Singh - who was suspended in their last game -- that made the Indian defence look more organised.
With midfielder Rahul Kannoly filling in for Boris, the Americans had exploited the right side of India's defence; with Tim Weah and Josh Sargent running amok. On Monday, Colombia had a player of similar skill and adaptability in Leandro Campaz on the left wing, but Boris and Sanjeev Stalin did a good job of keeping him on a tight leash. On a few occasions, India played a risky high backline, but Dheeraj's reading of the game in when to leave his box came in handy.
India would still want more out of their full-backs, especially in attack, as they did a year ago at the AFC U-16 championship in Goa. This has been a steep learning curve for the Indian team in realising that good teams around the world will always look to pin your full-backs into your own half. Iran, the only team from India's group last year that are at the World Cup this time around, had kept India's full-backs quiet and were the only team India had failed to score against in that tournament.
Midfield shows greater vision
Perhaps it was from the confidence generated through the goalkeeper and defence, but India's midfield did a better job. There was also a minor tactical switch, with coach Luis Norton de Matos starting with Jeakson and Rahim Ali, two of the taller members of the squad.
It may not have meant a lot in terms of possession, but it did stifle the free-flowing style of Colombia. This led to a lot of aerial balls, especially during the barren first half, but India didn't mind that. Colombia changed their natural game and India didn't mind losing all second balls, as long as the opposition was found wanting in converting them into tangible damage.
Greater attacking flair
On debut, the Indians had only gotten into some sort of attacking rhythm into the second half, after having conceded two goals. Monday's game saw India willing to commit more eagerly to attack early on, with Abhijit Sarkar coming closest to scoring in the first half. Kannoly would also hit the woodwork later in the game, and it showed that India were prepared to get bodies inside the box, with full-backs Stalin and Boris also joining in towards the end of the game.
Jeakson's goal was historic, but it also showed India can have scoring opportunities if the delivery to the boys up front is good. Against USA, India had the odd corner, and on one occasion Anwar Ali was able to beat his marker, but got the timing of his jump all wrong. These are the kind of mistakes which could be put down to the nerves but they need to show greater ability to soak in the pressure.
A costly switch off again
It is tempting, even romantic, to think of what might have been had Komal Thatal or Anwar converted their chances against USA. Indeed, if only one of Kannoly or Sarkar had registered a goal with their attempts against Colombia.
What we saw instead was a successive game where India conceded right after having their brightest moment in the opponents' half. Dheeraj and his teammates found it out the hard way, as their evening went from a potentially historic one to a second defeat at this World Cup.
Tired legs cost India
Barring Penaloza's first goal on Monday, which was hit with some venom and would have beaten the best of goalkeepers, India have conceded some soft goals all the way through. They have been outplayed in the second half of both matches they have played thus far, with tired legs and tired minds unable to keep up with the pace and variety of more experienced and pedigreed opposition.
There are lessons there, and they will learn a few more next Thursday against two-time champions Ghana. But these baby steps matter just as much as the hard knocks that come along with taking them.