India’s Merdeka Tournament campaign after a gap of 22 years ended in sheer disappointment when they went down to hosts Malaysia 2-4 in the semi-final in front of a deafening home crowd in the Bukit Jalil National Stadium on Friday.
Malaysia will now take on Tajikistan in the final to be played on October 17.
In a match marred by a few controversial refereeing decisions, the Blue Tigers trailed 1-3 at half time, but made a feisty comeback after resumption to reduce the margin through their skipper Sunil Chhetri.
However, their pace and enthusiasm to get back into the match received a jolt when the Thailand referee, Mongkolchai Pechhri, refused to accept that a Lallianzuala Chhangte shot had crossed the line in the 56th minute.
While the television replay clearly displayed that the ball went a few inches well over the goalline, the referee and the assistant referee preferred to rule otherwise, leaving the Indians absolutely stunned. Chhetri, the Indian captain, pleaded with the referee, but with no VAR available, the referee stuck to his guns.
As the Indians were still smarting under the rejection of what they felt was a genuine goal scored, the Malaysians found their fourth goal in the 61st minute through La’vere Corbin-Ong to take the game beyond the Blue Tigers’ reach.
Despite the defeat, the two goals scored by India could be genuine reasons to cheer up the Indian fans.
Mahesh Singh Naorem’s goal was a beauty; a combined move between Chhangte, Sahal Abdul Samad and Mahesh resulted in the latter’s accurate volley for which the Malaysian goalkeeper had no answer. Chhangte was in the thick of things in the second goal too as his measured pass made Chhetri’s job easy; all he had to do was tap the ball in.
India paid for their rather lacklustre defensive display in the first half.
Mahesh’s staggering strike in the 13th minute that cancelled Malaysia’s seventh-minute lead looked inadequate at the end of the first half as the Malaysian frontline repeatedly broke open India’s rather porous defence to pick up three goals in the first session and leave the visitors frantically searching for an option. A more cohesive display in the first 45 minutes would have changed the script, but that was not to be.
While Dion Cools put Malaysia in the lead off a corner kick, Arif Amin struck another in the 20th minute from a penalty kick. Faisal Halim slotted in off a counter-attack three minutes before the breather to widen the lead.
Yet, India tried their best to make amends in the second half.
Mahesh Singh and Chhangte ripped apart the rival defence with frequent attacks, but it didn’t bear the required fruits with the hosts winning 2-4 and sending India out of the tournament.