The Indian women’s football team’s Paris Olympics dreams went up in smoke after it lost 1-3 to Vietnam in a Group C match of the AFC qualifiers second round tournament in Tashkent on Sunday.
Having lost their second consecutive match, India are now out of contention for the 2024 Olympics despite having a match in hand. In the first match, India lost 0-7 to former World Cup champions Japan.
The three group winners and the best-ranked second-placed team in the second round advance to the third and final round.
Huyn Nhu (4th minute), Tran Thi Hai Linh (22nd) and Pham Hai Yen (73rd) found the target for Vietnam while Sandhiya Ranganathan pulled one back for India in the 80th minute.
All four goals of the match were scored from headers.
Bala Devi, who has been the star striker for India throughout her career, was posted as a deep-lying midfielder by coach Thomas Dennerby, while Soumya Guguloth and Anju Tamang kept switching between the centre-forward and the right-wing positions.
The experiment did not pay off against Vietnam, however, as the opponents launched a barrage of attacks in the opening exchanges. Their captain and striker Nhu got on the scoresheet in the fourth minute itself, when some confusion between India centre-back Ashalata Devi and right-back Sanju resulted in a loss of possession.
Nguyen Thi Tuyet Dung capitalised on the confusion and sent in a cross from the right flank, which was headed in by Nhu.
Speaking to the All India Football Federation’s website, Dennerby said, “We let in the goals without any aerial duels and that is the biggest problem. It’s three different situations - first from a mistake in the build-up, second from bad positioning, third from a bit of a goalkeeper mistake. So, it’s hard to say that it’s the same problem in each and every situation, but of course, we should have handled it better, whatsoever.”
Dennerby continued: “Like the second half against Japan, India conceded an early goal at the start of the first half versus Vietnam. Again, from an error in the build-up. “In the first minute, we made individual, technical, and unforced errors to let Vietnam score the first goal. Then we tried to go on and it was a very equal game in the first 20 minutes. But then we made another mistake, from which we couldn’t come back.”
The Vietnam captain was a menace upfront for the Indian defence, as she constantly managed to get between the lines, and position herself for free headers.
Another effort by Nhu, a glancing header this time, thudded into the near post before Bala cleared it. Minutes later, Panthoi had to pull off a diving save off a free kick to keep the 31-year-old forward out.
Vietnam struck again in the 22nd minute when an unmarked Linh headed a Doung Thi Van cross from the right, into the Indian goal.
India mainly relied on counter-attacks, Manisha being the primary outlet with her darting runs down the left. However, their best chance came from Bala, whose glancing shot off a Sanju corner trickled inches wide of the far post.
Another chance for India came with around 10 minutes left for the half-time break, when Manisha’s cross from the left was aimed at Anju at the far post. The latter headed it across the goal from an acute angle, but it was just beyond the reach of Soumya.
Bala moved back to the number 10 role in the later part of the first half.
In the second half, Dennerby brought on Sangita Basfore in place of the 33-year-old striker to act as a shield for the defence. Astam Oraon also replaced Ashalata, who was on a yellow.
While the changes did lend a certain amount of stability to the Indian defence, they did little to provide much joy in attack.
Striker Renu was introduced into the game with around 20 minutes to go, to bolster the attack. However, a minute later, lightning struck thrice as Vietnam scored with their head again. Substitute Yen was unmarked in the box this time and made no mistake as she headed in a cross from the right.
Ranganathan pulled one back for India as she ran onto a deep cross-field ball off a free-kick by Ritu Rani, and headed it past an onrushing Vietnam keeper.
India next play against hosts Uzbekistan on Wednesday with Dennerby hoping that India can leave the country with a win.
“Putting on the India shirt and playing for the nation should be enough motivation. Hopefully, girls feel that we need to play for our reputation. So yeah, we really need to show that we can and want to win a game,” said Dennerby.
“It’s important to leave the camp with a win that helps a lot for motivation for the future also. We have our honour to play for. So, I hope that the girls understand that even though we are out of the Olympics, this game now is a start for the future.”