Goalkeeper Niraj Kumar turned out to be the hero as India held heavyweights Iran to a goalless draw in the AFC U-16 Championship on Monday, the first time in 33 years.
The young custodian from Punjab blocked a 76th minute penalty to deny the fancied Iranians full points.
The last time India managed to hold Iran, across all age groups, was in December 1984 in the Asia Cup Finals in Singapore. That game also ended in a goalless stalemate.
On expected lines, Iran asserted their dominance early in the game and had a couple of attempts saved by Niraj. The Asian giants came very close to scoring in the 23rd minute, but the shot from a corner kick hit the bar, much to India’s relief at the Bukit Jalil Stadium.
Then, pressing football backed by confident defensive organisation and some sharp counter attacks helped India’s cause.
For all the possession that Iran enjoyed, it was India who had two of the easiest opportunities towards the end of second half.
Ravi Rana missed the first one as his chip went inches over the Iranian goal while the second shot missed the target by a whisker as Sailo, after rounding the Iranian custodian, could not finish from close range.
The match also saw Niraj displaying his talent under the bar. He stayed confident all throughout and was unbeatable in the aerial balls, leaping higher than all every time to collect the crosses from the flanks. He also dived full length to make a stunning save to deny Iran in the 16th minute.
“We could have won the match. It was that close. But the boys gave their hundred percent on the pitch and they performed according to the game plan,” said head coach of the Indian U-16 side Bibiano Fernandes.
“We are happy with a draw, though we aimed for a win and now we focus towards the next match against Indonesia (on September 27, 2018).”
The Indian midfield was stubborn as well as the defensive back-four. There was support and backup from each other.
The Indian Colts had an opportunity in the 35th minute of the match, but Ridge De’Mello’s shot from outside of the box went inches wide of the goal.
An attacking India emerged in the second half and they ran onto Iran’s final third in the early minutes, but to no avail, as the Iran defence held them at bay.
In a battle for midfield supremacy, both teams nullified each other out with chances coming in rare. While India relied on counters, Iran resorted to set pieces. Both, though, failed to create goal scoring chances.
In the 76th minute, Iran were awarded a spot-kick after India committed a foul inside the box, but Iran’s attempt was saved heroically by Niraj.
Two minutes later, Ravi’s shot from more than 30 yards caught the Iran custodian napping, but failed to find the target as it whistled past the goal.
Meanwhile, Indian defender Shahbas Ahammed was stretchered off following an injury in the 66th minute and was replaced by Harpreet Singh.