Indian football has rarely experienced a high like the one their emphatic 4-1 victory over Thailand in their 2019 Asian Cup opener produced. And for most of the first half in their 2-0 defeat against UAE on Thursday, it seemed as if things were going to get even better for the Blue Tigers.
Manager Stephen Constantine predictably set his side up to soak up pressure and attack on the break. With their confidence soaring, the players looked charged up, closing down the opposition excellently and denying them the time and space to find their rhythm.
For much of the game, India ensured that the host nation didn’t feel entirely at home.
In fact, despite UAE enjoying the lion’s share of possession throughout the encounter, it was India who provided a greater goal threat, particularly in the first half.
The most dangerous weapon in their arsenal was Ashique Kuruniyan. The youngster was the tip of the sword and the experienced Sunil Chhetri was the one wielding it.
Every time possession was turned over, Ashique put his head down and made darting runs in behind with Chhetri instinctively looking to find him at every opportunity. The strategy made sure the UAE’s defence were never at ease, constantly looking over their shoulder.
It nearly came to fruition as well. Chhetri intercepted a pass in the centre circle and released Ashique into space, whose shot from inside the area in the 12th minute was well saved by Khalid Essa.
India’s all-time leading scorer came close himself, when he powered his header right at the Emirati custodian following a delicious cross from Anirudh Thapa.
However, the visitors switched off just before half-time and Khalfan Mubarak was allowed to stroll into the box, latch onto Ali Mabkhout’s pass and slot it away. Once he got to the ball, Khalfan’s quality shone through but the reality is he should never have been allowed to reach it. The defending was indecisive at best and India paid the price.
A quick exchange with Chhetri saw the lively Udanta Singh strike the underside of the bar in the second half before the Indians were caught against the run of play late on, with Mabkhout this time applying the rather classy finishing touch. There was still time for Sandesh Jhingan to rattle the crossbar again with a header at the death.
“It was a tight game. UAE are a good side, and they converted their chances. When you get your chances, you got to convert them. If we could have taken ours, it could have been different,” Chhetri said after the contest and he’s absolutely right.
There was an opportunity to do something special against a UAE side that hasn’t been at their best but they squandered it along with their chances in front of goal.
The real test of character comes next though. Will they let this defeat deflate them and retreat to India with their tails between their legs? Or do they dig deep and ensure their historic win over Thailand was not a mere flash in the pan? Chhetri for one is certainly leaning toward the latter.
“We are still in the running. As a team, we are united and we are ready to fight, and that’s what we are going to do against Bahrain,” he said.
It’s imperative that India take the positives from this performance, one they should be immensely proud of and on another day, could’ve resulted in victory.
Crucially, they seem to have found an identity in this competition as a formidable unit capable of swift and dangerous attacks on the break.
That can still hold them in good stead going forward as long as they stick to their guns and most importantly, believe.
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