AFC Asian Cup 2019: United Arab Emirates defeat a lesson for India
Written by: Ali Shibil Roshan
The Blue Tigers will have to carve out a positive result against Bahrain to advance into the knockout rounds.
In a game where a victory would have ensured India their place in the knockout rounds of the AFC Asian Cup, hosts UAE got the better of the Blue Tigers. Goals from Khalfan Mubarak and Ali Mabkhout were all that they needed to register a crucial win, but it was India who posed more threat and played more dangerous football.
Stephen Constantine's boys ran the show with minimal possession. Whenever the United Arab Emirates had the ball, the Indian midfielders surrounded them and forced The Emiratis to push back. It was exciting and cliff-hanging to see India, who had not played in the previous edition of the tournament, threaten the hosts, a side that had upset Japan in the tournament's 2015 incarnation.
Watch: India 0-2 United Arab Emirates highlights
India pressed high and a side that is placed 18 FIFA rankings above the Blue Tigers stumbled. Sunil Chhetri and Co. had looked the stronger of the two units, until that goal from Mubarak; a goal borne out of his craft and India's sloppiness.
A goal down with 45 minutes to go, India did not show signs of nervousness and frustration and kept knocking at the door. Jeje Lalpeklua and Udanta Singh had chances to make things count. The Blue Tigers' attacks left the UAE defence vulnerable, but the Indians could not be clinical enough to punish The Whites' weaknesses.
As the UAE coach, Alberto Zaccheroni, himself admitted after the game, the hosts had struggled to cope with India's marauding pace. Udanta had, with his quick feet given Al Saleh a busy day at the office. India's midfield metronome, Anirudh Thapa, delivered another decent performance. The 20-year-old youngster had pluck and won back balls from the UAE.
However, in the 88th minute, Mabkhout scored the winner and put the game to bed. Ali Salmeen's long ball caught the Indian defence off-guarded. Mabkhout faked a move to send Pritam Kotal the wrong way and struck a nice shot, leaving Gurpreet Singh Sandhu hapless.
Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn. The UAE's victory was a lesson for India. The best side doesn't always win matches. The side that makes the most of their chances does. India had three shots on target and scored none, compared to the UAE's two, both of which resulted in goals.
The Indian defenders usually deliver strong performances and the same was expected from the Sandesh Jhingan-led back four. In the team's qualification campaign for the Asian Cup, most of the credit went to the backline for their tenacity. However, against the UAE, it was not on display. Anas Edathodika and Kotal cut frustrated figures. Had they been a little more aware, India could have earned at least a point from the match. Bahrain might have only scored a goal so far, but India shouldn't underestimate their attackers.
Anirudh Thapa has become an irreplaceable figure in India's midfield. The way he plays, those audacious moves, the courage to make the superior look inferior, those pinpoint crosses. Thapa has time and again proven why he has become so decisive to Constantine's plans. When Rowlin Borges replaced him in the second half, India lost the flow and the team struggled. Against Bahrain, there is no room for errors and the coach should stick with Thapa throughout.
Similarly, Udanta has also cemented his place in the team. Those marauding runs down the flanks, his knack to take the opposition by pace, those assists and crosses he whips into the box, speak for the Bengaluru FC winger.
The Indian attackers have been playing in a way they had not played before. It may have helped them get the adulation of the fans and media, but in the end, all that matters are the points. India need to be more incisive against Bahrain to get the desired result. The West Asians are strong defensively and the Blue Tigers shouldn't expect them to be Thailand.
Going into the game, where India need at least a draw, India don't have the momentum on their side, nor do they have the confidence ingrained from their drubbing of Thailand, but they have a few lessons learnt from the UAE defeat. The way India apply those learnings will perhaps decide the outcome of this crucial make-or-break clash.
Published: Sun Jan 13, 2019 09:39 PM IST