Before Thursday, India had scored eight goals in their first two games of the Intercontinental Cup, conceding none. That, perhaps, can be attributed to the fact that the hosts are the only ones in this four-nation event to have the benefit of a full-strength squad. Against New Zealand in Thursday’s match, coach Stephen Constantine made seven changes to his starting lineup, fielding a virtual second-string side.
The All Whites, though, had travelled to India with an even more makeshift line-up. The New Zealand Herald described the squad as “arguably the most youthful and inexperienced national squad in New Zealand football history.” It included six uncapped players, just five had morethan than 10 international appearances, and 10 had played no more than five internationals.
From that scratch-bunch emerged Sarpreet Singh – the first player of Indian descent to play for New Zealand. Sarpreet set up both Kiwi goals in their shock 2-1 win over India at the Mumbai Football Arena.
In only his fourth international, the 19-year-old had the maturity to hold the ball cleverly in front of the taller Indian centre-backs, spot a runner and thread the ball between. Both goals in fact, came from a similar forward ball that Andre De Jong and substitute Moses Dyer converted.
It was the hosts, though, who scored the opener a minute after the restart in a bizarre fashion. Faced with pressure at the halfline, New Zealand midfielder Liberato Cacace played a long pass back to his goalkeeper Michael Woud. The custodian rushed from his line to intercept but his clearance ricocheted off the onrushing Sunil Chhetri and rolled into an open goal.
Till that moment, New Zealand had by far been the better team amidst the seven changes Constantine had introduced. There was consistent trouble from the right flank, as Jai Ingham floated in cross after cross. The only respite for India in that period was that the Kiwi strikers, though they won the aerial duels, were hopeless in their heading at goal.
The one occasion striker Myer Bevan, who netted the winner against Chinese Taipei, did get a header on target, Amrinder Singh managed to get a save and Rowlin Borges cleared the rebound. It was a clear tactic, play crosses from the flanks, that had New Zealand create most of the chances despite the poor finishing.
In the second half though, the tactic changed and the idea was to keep the ball grounded. For that Sarpreet was the crucial link. The visitors responded immediately after Chhetri’s opener, launching an attack that saw the teenager pass between centre-backs Narayan Das and Salam Ranjan Singh for De Jong to slot home in the 49th minute.
For the second goal in the 86th minute, the Wellington Phoenix midfielder in the A-League dribbled passed three Indian defenders before placing his pass for Dyer to run onto and side-foot past Amrinder.
By that time, Constantine had already replaced five of his initial seven changes, even bringing on Sandesh Jhingan and Jeje Lalpekhlua – the latter completing 50 international appearances. But just as their juniors before them, India’s regular starting 11 couldn’t find their feet as the Kiwis worked tirelessly, and much more efficiently.
The match was supposed to be another stroll for the higher-ranked and better-equipped Indians. Prior to the tournament, the All Whites travelled from the South Hemisphere winter and had to acclimatise quickly – two players had fallen ill due to the sudden weather change.
“An under-experienced team bound for embarrassment,” explains New Zealand coach Fritz Schmid, of how his team had been rated before they made the trip. Now they’ve toppled India, and they had a player of Indian descent leading that charge.