The Indian football team ended their Intercontinental Cup campaign with a hard-fought 1-1 draw against Syria at Ahmedabad on Tuesday.
Eighteen year-old Narender Gahlot scored his first-ever international goal as he headed India in front in the 51st minute. But Syrian skipper Firas Alkhatib equalised with 12 minutes to steal a point for the visitors.
The point though wasn’t enough for Syria to book a place in the final on Friday after they finished third behind Tajikistan and DPR Korea, both of whom will play in the title clash.
The game got off to a flying start as Udanta Singh raced down the right flank to send a dangerous cross in the fourth minute for the Indian forwards to attack, but the Syrian rearguard dealt with the danger.
A minute later, the visitors almost got their noses in front when striker Mohammad Al Marmour sneaked behind the Indian defence only to fire his shot wide of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s goal.
A couple of minutes later, Udanta once again wreaked havoc on the right flank to send a teasing low cross across the face of the goal, but it evaded the onrushing Sunil Chhetri and Lalianzuala Chhangte.
Syria slowly gained control of the game thereafter but the Indians ensured there weren’t many threats on Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s goal by keeping a narrow shape. Rahul Bheke who started in the centre-back’s role in the absence of Adil Khan and Sandesh Jhingan, put in an impressive performance, winning many aerial duels in the game.
However, Syrian skipper Alkhatib missed a golden chance to put the visitors ahead in the 29th minute after latching onto a loose ball in the box and firing over the target.
The game tapered off in the final fifteen minutes of the half as the referee’s whistle drew a tight half of football to a close with the game still goalless.
In the second half, Gahlot and Bheke switched sides in central defence for greater stability, but the 18-year-old made a mark at the opposite end when he headed India into the lead from an Anirudh Thapa corner in the 51st minute.
The goal gave the Indians a spring in their step and pushed the Syrians back in their own half for the fifteen minutes that followed.
But just when a resolute India began to frustrate the Syrians, substitute Jerry Lalrinzuala made a reckless challenge just inside the box to award the visitors a lifeline. Skipper Alkhatib stepped up to slot home the penalty and draw his team level with 12 minutes of play remaining.
India were under severe pressure in the dying minutes but a collective defensive display saw them through the turbulent phase.
The hard-earned point ensured India didn’t end the Intercontinental Cup empty-handed and gave them some confidence ahead of the crucial 2022 World Cup qualifiers in September.