Afghanistan vs India: The Blue Tigers just couldn't roar
At the Central Republican Stadium in Dushanbe, a sizeable crowd of Indian supporters had to watch their team succumb to a third draw in four matches in Group E of the World Cup qualifiers.
India were at a disadvantage even before the ball was kicked. Afghanistan hosted India on artificial turf in Dushanbe, close to 600 kilometres away from their home stadium, due to security reasons. While playing on that was hard enough, India had to do it without a designated centre-back.
Sandesh Jhingan's injury and Anas Edathodika's return to his hometown (due to personal reasons) meant right-back Rahul Bheke and Adil Khan were paired up in central defence.
A collective failure to create chances in the final third combined by a few poor displays by individuals let India down. Mandar Rao Dessai, who has grown accustomed to the left-back role under Sergio Lobera at FC Goa, had a shocker against Afghanistan. His flank was targeted by the opposition's attackers and they finally found joy towards the end of a dull first-half. The Goan was easily beaten by David Najem who crossed into the centre of the box for an unmarked Zelfy Nazary to find the net.
Even as the game resumed after the break, it took the Blue Tigers a bit of time to really make an impact in front of the Afghanistan goal. There is no questioning Sahal Abdul Samad's potential but it was a poor display by the young midfielder who played in behind Sunil Chhetri. He was completely ineffective and was on the periphery for most parts, which meant the strategy to get Brandon Fernandes on the ball in deeper areas didn't work.
Brandon had a lot of the ball throughout the game but he was deployed very deep. His set-pieces and crosses, however, found their targets and Sunil Chhetri, another one of the night's poor performers, will be furious about a second-half miss off the Goan's delivery. It was a notable weakness that India did not have enough bodies inside the box to convert crosses that came in, with Chhetri, more often than not, the lone man against big bodies.
India were dominant as the game neared its end. Igor Stimac's substitutions were brave - Farukh Choudhary came on for Mandar, Manvir Singh for Sahal and Len Doungel for Kotal - and the final change helped India earn a point. Brandon's pinpoint corner-kick found Doungel who rose well inside the box to nod in an equaliser which evoked emotions of relief rather than joy.
With five days to go for the next game, against Oman, it's time for players to pull up their socks.