Indian football team goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu thwarts an attempt at goal by the UAE in their AFC Asian Cup 2019 Group A match on January 10 (Pic: FB/AFC Asian Cup).
It was just a loss, some might say, but it wasn’t. It was three points lost. And that too when they’d had moments to really make it work. Sunil Chhetri just stood at the end, shaking his head. Captain for the game, leader for every one, he had scored 67 goals in his 104 appearances for the Indian football team prior to this AFC Asian Cup 2019 game in Abu Dhabi, and in this, on another day, he would have added two to his tally. Matter of fact, on another, favourable day Ashique Kuruniyan, Udanta Singh and Sandesh Jhingan would have all had a goal for the game. But they didn’t. And instead, the UAE, building patiently, controlling the midfield, had two, one right at the the edge of halftime through Khalfan Mubarak, when India had looked the far more dangerous side, and the second to knock the stuffing out of them, Ali Mabkout finishing a sublime goal almost entirely of his own making. (IND vs UAE match highlights)
This was a new beginning but it had ended like that. UAE 2 India 0.
Football is all about capitalising on a series of moments. The greater the frequency of these moments the more dominant a team’s chances of victory. It is hard to deny that India didn’t. They created few and far between of these moments, and when they didn’t they wasted them. The first perspective on this game will show that India had some unbelievably clear scoring opportunities — Chhetri and Kuruniyan with two of the best — but somehow the finishing failed them.
Chhetri had a point blank header denied by Khalid Eisa in the UAE’s goal, and then saw another shot, from a much more different angle whizz past the far post by inches. Kuruniyan, again saw Eisa save a shot, when as a collective everyone across India was willing the ball into the net.
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Then, in the second half, Udanta Singh, having played a brilliant give and go with Chhetri managed to hit the underside of the bar, and the ball, infuriatingly, stayed out. The game was still on knife’s edge. By the time Jhingan had repeated the bar trick, UAE had scored a second, but a goal would’ve furthered India’s cause.
But that is the simplistic version. In the real turn of events, the truth is that the UAE controlled almost all of the ball. In the first half they were guilty of playing a bit too intricately and sometimes without purpose. Each time they were caught out, or the ball turned over, their defence scrambled back to make amends. India’s high octane pressing threw them off guard at times, but not enough that they changed tack.
In the second half though, and credit here must be given to Alberto Zaccaroni, they were much more composed. Where earlier their midfield meandered off without half a claim to drop back and defend their mistakes, now the defensive line and the midfield played as a unit, shutting down any and all Indian runners with ease. Chhetri and Kuruniyan were stranded up front for large periods, feeding off the long bunts and clearances that Gurpreet flung their way.
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Constantine’s game plan relied around the quick counter, and he had set his team up for it, the midfield more shielde than sword and the wings the quick route to the preferred goal. A fatal mistake by Anas shunted that gameplan around.
Khalfan Mubarak’s opener may have come against the run of play, but it was a moment executed as if to spite India for their own inconsistencies. A long ball from the deep was met by Ali Mabkout, who managed to catch it down, draw Anas out of position and turn to pass it to his strike partner running into space. Mubarak still had a lot to do, from an acute angle too, but he didn’t miss.
From there, with India chasing the game, the UAE knew exactly what they needed to do to take the points. Pass the Indians to fatigue. Chasing the ball for 90 minutes is an infuriatingly exhausting thing, and by the end no one could fault India’s effort. They had run themselves to the ground.
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Now we pick up and start again. Thailand’s victory over Bahrain in the opening game of the group keeps the possibility of India’s qualification still very real. A win or a draw against Bahrain would propel India to the top two in the group and direct qualification.
A loss would put them in a situation where they need the UAE to beat Thailand and hope they rank as one of the better third placed sides in the tournament.
All the math. All the trouble. All the hope. All for 2 inches of steel, and a goalkeeper in the mood for heroism.
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