India opened their 2019 Intercontinental Cup campaign with a 4-2 loss to Tajikistan. Despite a 2-0 lead going into the second half, India, the heavily fancied hosts, were stunned by a 20-minute salvo that saw Tajikistan score four unanswered goals and snatch the win.
India had opened the scoring with Sunil Chhetri's panenka in the fourth minute and he doubled it in the 41st with a lovely toe-poked finish. In between those goals, though, Tajikistan dominated for large swathes with India dropping deeper and deeper into their own half and solely relying on the pace of Udanta Singh and Lallianzuala Chhangte to break the pressure.
What will worry Indian fans is that the 4-2 scoreline did not flatter Tajikistan one bit, as they capitalised on the hosts' shaky defense. India have a few pressing questions to answer.
Who will be the team's first choice centre-back pairing?
Igor Stimac was blunt in his post-match interaction with the broadcasters - "We don't have great defenders in this country, yet."
With Sandesh Jhingan seemingly not fit enough to start, and recalled Anas Edathodika not fit enough to remain with the final 23-man squad, Stimac went for his third different centre-back pairing in three matches, using Adil Khan and 18-year-old debutant Narender Gahlot.
Individual mistakes littered the displays of both, but it would be more concerning for the coach that they seemed to be on completely different wavelengths for large stretches of the match. Tajikistan may have only started scoring in the second half, but India were repeatedly carved open with ease in the first half, poor finishing letting them off the hook.
Stimac, however, was full of praise for Gahlot, calling his endurance capacity and physical abilities "phenomenal, like that of a European player," but added that India would "need to suffer for a while" while he achieves his full potential.
In the meantime, he has got a real problem in the short-term. Sandesh Jhingan is likely to return to the XI once he recovers, but with Anas out, and neither Rahul Bheke nor Adil looking comfortable alongside him in the King's Cup, who does Stimac pick?
Who can be the Slaven Bilic to Jhingan's Stimac?
What happens without Sunil Chhetri?
Where the first goal was all cheek, the second was pure skill. Sunil Chhetri's 69th and 70th international goals were sublime, but the problem lies in the fact that no one else even threatened Rustam Yatimov in the Tajikistan goal.
India's over-dependence on Chhetri continues to be the standout aspect of this team's performances.
Playing as a lone forward, Chhetri cut an isolated figure, and he dropped deeper and deeper to connect with Sahal Abdul Samad behind him and Chhangte and Udanta on either side of him. It left India's best player in a position where his talents weren't anywhere close to being maximised.
Once again, Stimac implied that he was helpless to redress one of this team's most pressing problems. "Why don't we score more goals?" he asked himself. "How can we score when none of the centre-forwards of India play in the ISL, but are sitting on the bench?" he answered.
Is the midfield solid enough?
One optimistic sign for India was the display of Samad, and alongside him Anirudh Thapa and Amarjit Singh Kiyam. Samad's expert touch and vision were on display when he set up the break that led to the penalty for India's first goal, and he looked threatening every time he got the ball in dangerous areas. Thapa and Amarjit alongside him, meanwhile, seamlessly passed it around when in possession and some of the one-touch football from the three in the middle was quite lovely to watch.
The team has quite a bit of issues to sort out - Stimac singled out "concentration" and the ability to retain focus through the entire 90 minutes - but central midfield may not be one of them. If the team's strategy becomes a bit more proactive, Stimac may well see these three raising India's overall performance levels.