India are through to the quarterfinals of the AFC U-16 Championships in Malaysia, following a goalless draw with Indonesia in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday. This will be their first appearance at the last eight of this event, a qualification for the U-17 World Cup in Peru in 2019, since 2002.
While they have put in spirited efforts in all three group games, their maturity will be stretched in the quarterfinal, where they are likely to face in-form South Korea on Monday in order to qualify for the U-17 World Cup.
Defence has been the standout
India have been solid at the back, and as of Thursday, remain the only team apart from the Koreans to have kept clean sheets in all group matches.
Goalkeeper Niraj Kumar was the star in their second game against Iran, thwarting an early shot on goal, before pulling off a comfortable penalty save against Alireza Bavieh. The back four of Thoiba Singh, Gurkirat Singh, Bikash Yumnam and Shabas Ahammed have all been good for coach Bibiano Fernandes right through. Indonesia dominated both possession and large portion of chances, much like Iran, but found it difficult to create enough openings once they got inside the Indian penalty box, thanks to some good anticipation and commitment from the Indian defence.
Forward line can trouble the best
While India have managed only one goal so far - that too from the penalty spot - captain Vikram Pratap Singh alongside Ridge De'Mello and Bekey Oram have created a slew of opportunities in every game. De'Mello and Vikram are adept at running hard at the opposition full-backs. Midfielders Ravi Rana and Givson Singh join in well with them, and holding midfielder Ricky Shabong also showed some good control and shooting skills against Indonesia, creating perhaps the only clear-cut scoring chance for either team in the first half on Thursday. India must address the wastefulness in the final third as the quality of opposition improves in the knockout stages.
Tactical flexibility has been key
India have begun each game with the same eleven, and even their substitutions have been largely consistent. What stands out, though, is their ability to adapt the formation and play a patient game to nullify the opposition.
They played a 4-3-3 in their 1-0 win against Vietnam, adapted it to a 4-5-1 against Iran, and alternated between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 in the last match, where they kept threatening Indonesia on the counter. In their eagerness to take the battle to the opposition, India have conceded seven yellow cards though, and three on the night against Indonesia. Right-back Shabas' yellow was needless in particular, coming on the back of a couple of verbal warnings for getting too physical against opposition winger Supriadi.
Bibiano must gel the defensive discipline with better finishing to have any chance of beating the winners of Group D.