Manager Stephen Constantine believed India squandered “enough chances to win two games” as his energetic and enterprising young team ultimately lost 2-0 to a more clinical UAE at the Asian Cup.
Khalfan Mubarak put the Whites 1-0 up in the first half against the run of play. And as the Blue Tigers pressed for an equaliser but ran out of steam after the interval, deadly Ali Mabkhout wrapped up the points with a killer late second.
Defeat still leaves India in good shape to make the round of 16 though, following their opening 4-1 victory over Thailand.
And their English coach Constantine told his India players in the aftermath of defeat that they are going to go and win their final Group A game against Bahrain on Monday and qualify for the knockout rounds of the Asian Cup – for the first time in more than 50 years.
Constantine, in charge since 2015, said: “We created enough chances to win two games, not one.
“The problem is when you don’t convert them, they come back and make you pay for it. In the last game we converted, this game we didn’t.
“I think the UAE had three shots on target (six), one hit the post and the other two went in. I think we deserved a draw at least but if you don’t convert your chances, you are made to pay.
“I have 23 bitterly disappointed boys in there and I think that speaks volumes. A couple of years ago we’d have come here, lost 2-0 and been quite happy. They know we could have taken something from this game. But we have another one and we look forward to Bahrain.”
India are appearing at just their fourth Asian Cup and failed to go beyond the initial phase in both 1984 and 2011. They finished runners-up in just a four-team tournament in 1964 though and a young squad is winning admirers in the Emirates.
The Blue Tigers have an average age of just under 25, with only three players in the squad over 30 – including skipper Sunil Chhetri, 34, his nation’s leading appearance maker and goalscorer.
India twice hit the bar and wasted a slew of decent chances, with Chhetri and Pritam Kotal both guilty of missing opportunities to break the deadlock in the first half.
Mubarak and then Mabkhout made them pay, with Constantine ruing the fact his side were not as clinical as in the 4-1 thrashing of Thailand in their opener.
Constantine added: “I just told them ‘pick your heads up, you didn’t lose this game’, if you know what I mean. We played very well and could have won it.
“We have another game in four days’ time and we’re going to win it and qualify. I can’t ask any more from the players. They gave everything they had as they do every time they play for India and I’m very proud of them.
“We’ll give anyone a game, that’s clear from today, Thailand and during qualifying. Many of the UAE players told me ‘we didn’t think you were that good’, which is nice, but at the end of the day we lost.”
Alberto Zaccheroni heaped praise on a young and energetic India team that posed plenty of problems for his UAE side – although the Italian admired the Whites’ “clinical” finishing that earned a key 2-0 win at the Asian Cup.
The host nation were harried and harangued for large parts of an entertaining encounter at Zayed Sports City on Thursday night – one that saw the UAE go to the top of Group A with four points following their win and saw them put one foot in the knockout stages.
Veteran Italian tactician Zaccheroni thanked the 43,206 fans inside the stadium for supporting his side – even if most of the noise being generated was by passionate Indian followers.
“I am delighted to have been able to make UAE fans happy with this win,” said Zaccheroni, the 65-year-old ex-Juventus, AC and Inter Milan coach who won this competition with Japan in 2011.
“I know they were disappointed after the first draw. I would like to thank all of those fans that came here tonight and supported us.”
Zaccheroni and his charges were under pressure following a below par performance and result in their opening game of the tournament against Gulf neighbours Bahrain last Saturday. Ahmed Khalil’s late penalty earned a late point in a 1-1 stalemate.
The result was much better against Stephen Constantine’s Blue Tigers, who had thrashed Thailand 4-1 in their first game, even if the UAE were outplayed for large spells.
But a deft Khalfan Mubarak finish before the break put the UAE 1-0 up after being teed up by Al Jazira team-mate Ali Mabkhout. And it was the lethal Pride of Abu Dhabi striker who secured victory with a late second for his side.
The win moved the UAE onto four points, with India second on goal difference from Thailand who beat Bahrain 1-0 earlier in the day.
And Zaccheroni was pleased with how his side dealt with the threat of the Blue Tigers.
“We started well, but with time we struggled with the pace of the Indian team,” he added.
“In the second half, we changed the way we play; we were tackling more, recovering the ball quicker and were more focused. We were clinical in front of goal and got the second goal.
“Congratulations for my team for the result and the performance. India have a bright future ahead of them.”
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.