Indian football team skipper Sunil Chhetri celebrates after scoring a goal against Thailand football team in their AFC Asian Cup match in Abu Dhabi on January 6 (Pic: AIFF).
“Tomorrow morning we train again,” said Stephen Constantine in his press conference post India’s AFC Asian Cup victory over Thailand, because that, after all is what football players do. Regardless of the result, they grind. Next morning though. On Monday. The villains of the week. After a Sunday full of upsets. (INDIA vs THAILAND HIGHLIGHTS)
Rankings, form and reputation are fragile objects in football, knocked over by the faintest hint of desire and will. And on January 6, the first of the AFC Asian Cup, even before Indian football team had taken to the field, there had been one — Jordan knocking over the defending champions’ (Australia’s) cup of tea. It had started perhaps even earlier, when Real Kashmir FC took on Mohun Bagan at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, and took all three points in the I-League. Later at night, Barnet, a non-league club, knocked Sheffield United (second in the Championship) out of the FA Cup. The Sunday Syndrome was strong. On paper Bagan, Sheffield and Australia were favourites, but football, of course, is played on grass.
Why not India then? If plotted on a single-axis graph, India’s chances for the win were significantly higher than any of the others. They were higher than Thailand in the rankings, after all.
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Two Sunil Chhetri goals, one Anirudh Thapa dink and a Jeje Lalpekhlua thudda later, India had their victory confirmed. 4-1. Three points. Top of Group A courtesy of the hosts playing out a draw with Bahrain in the tournament opener.
India had been away from this stage for eight years. Thailand for 12. Understandably, nerves were aplenty for most of the first half. Thailand were happier and stronger when they were pinging the ball around, albeit most of it without purpose or meaning. India pressed high and hard, and their left channel — Subhashish Bose and Halicharan Narzary — was the root for almost all of their verve. Each time Thailand were caught in possession and the ball played to India’s left, Thailand’s France-born right back, Tristan Do looked vulnerable. Thrice within the first five minutes, Narzary and Bose managed to drop delectable crosses into the box, but to no avail.
When India’s opener finally did arrive, it was as anticlimactic as it was poached. Sunil Chhetri, quick thinker, quick talker, quick everything, took a quick throw in from the left, to find Ashique Kuruniyan in the box. Kuruniyan had space to run, turn and shoot, but Thailand’s goalkeeper parried, unfortunately on to his own defender’s arm. Penalty to India. A soft one, but converted by Chhetri nonetheless. The goal took Chhetri to the top of India’s list of Asian Cup goalscorers, but he wasn’t done. There was another record to be surpassed and by the end of the evening he had moved himself ahead of Lionel Messi on the international goals charts.
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Thailand equalised within six minutes — a little more than the time it takes for a celebratory cup of tea to be put together — via Teerasil Dangda, and if anything, India will learn more from that goal than the victory itself. A freekick on their left this time carved open by a long ball. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Pritam Kotal and Pronay Halder were all beaten to the ball despite having Dangda sandwiched between them. Gurpreet more than anyone will feel the pinch.
Goalkeepers are often the villians in these situations, and at every level of the game with a ball played into a dangerous area they are forced into making a decision that could end up making them look foolish and vulnerable. It is a tough spot to be in. If he had stayed on his line, he may have been beaten by the header anyway — the reaction time too little to save. If he had fully committed to the punch and missed, it was a tap in. In both scenarios though he would have made a decision and stuck by it. Half and half is never a good play.
The second half then was where India made all the decisions. They switched the play wide and with purpose. Thapa had been hassled through the first half and in the second he decided to do the hassling. Narzary was the fulcrum in the first half, and Udanta became the fulcrum in the second. Kotal and him harried and pressed the Thai midfield into mistake after mistake from the 46th minute.
Chhetri’s second was a result purely of the high press and a smart pull back. Thapa’s third the result of the 20-year-old’s energetic press, and then his desire to keep running. By the time Jeje scored his redeemer, the Thais had already given up. Hours after the game, their manager Milovan Rajevac had been sacked. A reflux that Indians are all too familiar with.
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As for India, this was dream land. A first win in 55 years. The biggest victory at this competition ever. The goals had come from everywhere too. Stephen Constantine, the pragmatic man in the ‘80s uncle suit, though, kept it real. As he should.
“We still have two games left and we still need another two points to qualify from the group stages,” he said.
The hosts lie in wait next, and India’s defence will have to be much more iron clad for that test. If a point is to be won, then it will be won through a lot of suffering. But what are 90 minutes where 55 years have been suffered. From a Sunday of upsets to a Monday of joy. Rejoice and relax. India have three points at the Asian Cup.
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