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AFC Women’s Asian Cup: India, Iran Play Out a Game of Misses

India are in a complex situation after the 0-0 draw in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup opener against Iran, the lowest ranked team in the group. From dreaming of the quarterfinals and World Cup qualification, they find themselves in a must-win situation against higher-ranked teams.
India vs Iran AFC Asian Cup football match action

Action from the AFC Women’s Asian Cup match between India and Iran in Mumbai on Thursday (Pic: AIFF).

You may have heard this one before. “You are not given goals,” Thomas Dennerby said, “You have to score them.” 

And it was the one thing India couldn’t do, dominating the game, completing 411 passes for 65% of possession, taking 24 shots on goal (five on target), and basically knocking down and throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Iran. The goal eluded them. And when they came closest, Dangmei Grace rising high, two yards out to head down a Manisha Panna’s cross, Zohreh Koudaei was there, her agile reflexes and astute  positioning enough to help palm out — more scoop out — a sureshot opener. 

“We came to win the game,” Koudaei later said, admitting in the same breath that they were happy to have got the one point against the Indian women’s football team in their AFC Asian Women’s Cup opener. For the first 20 minutes though, they had come to win, breaking at India with a kind of press and energy the hosts really could not have expected. They ended the game with a third of the shots on goal India mustered, but it was them who had the first few gos at the net. In the 12th minute, Iran’s captain Behnaz Taherkhani floated a freekick into the box from 25 yards out, and from a melee came the first, a header on goal, hitting the crossbar before safely rolling away. Seven minutes on, Sanju’s misplaced header fell to Negin Zandi — a livewire and a constant threat — in the box, isolated and with just a goalkeeper to beat, albeit from a tight angle. She shot wide. 

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These were warning shots, a wake up call, that Iran hadn’t just come to play but to outplay their generous hosts on their debut in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup. The game was set at the blockbuster time, but in many ways it was anything but. The two higher ranked teams in the group had played in the afternoon, China handily beating Chinese Taipei 4-0 with one hand on the brakes. That game was also a stark reminder of the vast gap between the elites and the others, even at just the continental level. It is another strong reason to question the AFC’s prize money allocation for the tournament. It may well make the strong stronger, and drive the weak away.

After those two sights at the Indian goal, Iran retreated, as India rose in confidence and ability. Manisha Kalyan and Indumathi traded attempts at goal — both shooting and heading high and wide from inside the box. At halftime, a draw was a fair scoreline, even if the lack of goals raised eyebrows. 

Grace vs Iran defender and skipper

But, that’s because you have to score them. After halftime, Pyari Xaxa took up the scoring (more accurately, missing) mantle, till Dennerby had seen enough. It was time to pull out the big guns, specifically one he had left in the holster when it may have been prudent to bring it out first. Dangmei Grace on, Sandhiya off.

The game changed. Suddenly India had more urgency, and Iran, from having an even foothold, went deeper and deeper into their half, increasing in numbers. They adopted the counter attack game. Almost immediately, Dangmei started creating more, off the ball and on chances, in the final third. She released Indumathi inside the box, only to see her bulge the net from the side. A minute later, Pyari had another go, this time Koudaei at hand to make the save. And then in the 75th, Dangmei had her own chance, positioning herself perfectly for the cross between two defenders, both caught ball watching, five yards from goal. She headed down, a superb decision in the moment, considering the weight of the cross and the movements ahead of her. The only criticism to be made perhaps is about the position of the header, but if you made it, it would be too harsh. It was going in on any day but on Thursday. It almost did too, crawling one third over the line, before Koudaei turned, sprung, and literally scooped it out. All in one motion. Two games in, and it is safe to say this will be among the saves of the tournament. 

Between these chances, Iran had their own, Zandi picking up a bouncing ball off a half cleared corner to lash at goal, Dalima Chhibber’s timely block ensuring India didn’t concede. Five minutes later Zandi almost capitalised again, off an Aditi Chauhan error, looping the ball over everyone and towards the goal. This time the captain Ashalata, among Chauhan’s closest friends in the team, had her ’keeper’s back, clearing off the line.  

India showed urgency in the final minutes of play, forcing the play even if they were guilty — as they were through the game — of playing the long ball or the more difficult pass when the easier was available. Iran persevered too, breaking their backs for a point in their debut game at this level. In the 90th, Dangmei got one more chance via the 17-year-old Sumati Kumari’s flicked header. A chance for heartbreak and a chance for elation — alone in the box, ball in control and in her stride with just the goalkeeper to beat. Right then came Taherkhani with a tackle from behind, but also one perfectly timed, to take the ball away from the shooting foot just as the trigger was about to be pulled. Iran had escaped. Or rather, India hadn’t done enough, well enough to beat them.

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“We were a little surprised by them, honestly,” Dennerby said about the opponents. “But of course you never know. Every game is a new game after all.” 

He understood the complex situation this puts India in. From dreaming of the quarterfinals and World Cup qualification, to now, having drawn the lowest ranked team in the group — the second lowest in the competition! 

“We have to get points against Chinese Taipei,” he concluded. They have to score goals then, because they won’t get them.

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