The Asian Cup match against the United Arab Emirates was a strange one from an Indian perspective. Never has an Indian side found so much joy in defeat, however debatable this particular notion might be. Indeed, when was the last time India had put a host nation under so much pressure in an international tournament?
If the UAE turned up to the Zayed Sports City Stadium hoping for an easy kill, they were in for a rude shock. The final score read 2-0, but the losers, India, were by no means the inferior team on the day.
Talk of luck is largely exaggeration as everyone knows that the best teams make their own luck. However, it was difficult to deny the popular sentiment that India deserved something from this match.
For a second game running, India defied their critics and played a style that we have not come to expect from the Blue Tigers for the last three to four years. Stephen Constantine refused to apply the handbrakes that have come to define India’s locomotion for a while now and long-term spectators were left baffled but pleasantly overwhelmed at this new style of play.
The Englishman fielded an unchanged line-up from the one that got the better of Thailand.
The hosts would be one step higher, a team playing at home and aiming for the title. India kept the high intensity game up for the first half, opting to press their opponents into making mistakes.
The pressing line was the same, and it was once again uniform as four, sometimes five Indian players found themselves in the UAE half attempting to recover the ball. The breakthrough nearly came early as Sunil Chhetri played Ashique Kuruniyan, who was one-on-one with Khalid Eisa but saw his shot saved.
That would set the template for the game; India would aim to go direct while UAE would try to break the Indian lines. The gap in technique was there for every fan to see, but India made up for it with their fitness, their relentless forward charge and their directness in the final third. The problem with India’s approach was always going to be the non-conversion of chances and UAE’s eventual pursuit of the goal.
India created the better chances, missed them and lived to rue it. Anas Edathodika’s mistake meant that Ali Mabkhout got the ball deep in India’s half and he passed it to Khaflan Mubarak, who struck it past Gurpreet Sandhu.
Stephen Constantine’s second-half changes did not pan out as well as he would have liked. Jeje Lalpekhlua’s goal against Thailand meant that he was the first off the bench, and it was his introduction that slowed down India’s play.
UAE’s physicality had meant that Ashique had been pushed around all evening, not withstanding his sudden burst of pace. The hosts’ introduction of Hassan meant they had more control in midfield come the end of the match.
The Indians were leggy, understandable given that they had played Thailand three days prior. Jackichand Singh and Rowllin Borges’ introductions were understandable, but the Blue Tigers could have used some pace up front. Udanta Singh and Anirudh Thapa were hooked; Constantine presumably keeping an eye on the Bahrain match as well.
Subhasish Bose and Pritam Kotal also didn’t venture up front, meaning that India played a flat 4-4-2 after Jeje’s introduction, a much easier system for UAE to counter. Regardless, Chhetri and Co created chances in the second half as well but failed to take them. Unfamiliar territory for Indian fans; playing well and losing out.
Mabkhout’s goal towards the end from a long ball sealed the deal for the hosts but India still have a good chance to make it to the next stages. Thailand’s 1-0 win over Bahrain leaves the group finely poised with qualification going down to the final match-day.
With four best-placed third teams making it to the knockouts, India will hope that they have enough left in the tank to get a point against Bahrain. They may have already exceeded pre-tournament expectations but going home at this point would prove to be a cruel blow.
Constantine put it best, “Few years back, we would have lost 2-0 to this team, and would have gone back happy. Today, I have 23 young men who are sad, because we could have won the game.”