India failed to build on their winning start to the AFC Asian Cup adventure as they succumbed to a 0-2 defeat at the hands of United Arab Emirates in Group A of the competition at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi.
Stephen Constantine’s men executed their game plan quite efficiently in the first half, but failed to find the finishing touch that would edge them ahead of the hosts.
The Blue Tigers conjured a spirited performance and were only denied due to the heroics of Khalid Eisa in the visitors’ goal after the Emirati goalkeeper prevented both Ashique Kuruniyan and Sunil Chhetri from breaking the deadlock in the first half.
Despite their persistent efforts in attack, India conceded the opening goal against the run of play due to the lack of communication between Anas Edathodika and Sandesh Jhingan in the 42nd minute.
Ali Mabkhout stretched the back-line with a run before setting up Khalfan Mubarak, who scored with a neat finish from a tight angle to send the stadium into a delirium of noise.
The visitors responded quickly when Gurpreet Singh Sandhu released Chhetri with a goal-kick, but the Indian skipper’s finish went narrowly wide as he aimed for the far post.
UAE were happy with knocking it around in the second half as India continued their push for an equaliser. Udanta Singh came the closest when his thunderous shot clipped the underside of the bar before staying out as UAE breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Mabkhout put the result beyond any doubt in the 88th minute, when he scored with a neat finish after controlling a lobbed pass to perfection. There would still be time for India to be denied by the frame of the goal yet again as Jhingan’s effort from a set-piece struck the post.
The result now means that UAE are currently leading the race for qualification from Group A with four points, while India and Thailand, who beat Bahrain, are in close pursuit with three points.
Without further delay, let’s take a closer look at the best and worst performers from the game:
#5 Hit - Sunil Chhetri
Sunil Chhetri was arguably India’s best player on the night courtesy of a spirited display that probably lifted the whole side, like always. The 34-year-old worked tirelessly for the Blue Tigers and was not shy of dropping deep to enjoy more involvement on the ball.
India’s first chance of the night stemmed through Chhetri’s determination to win the ball back in midfield before his vision set up Ashique Kuruniyan with a golden chance.
The Bengaluru FC forward also had an attempt saved when Khalid Eisa denied his header from close range following a superbly executed cross from Anirudh Thapa from the right flank.
Chhetri also went close shortly after UAE opened the score when his shot narrowly whizzed beyond the far post when he conjured a shot after being played through by Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
Despite failing to find the back of the net on a couple of instances in the first half, Chhetri’s link-up play was excellent and he was very much involved with Udanta, when the latter struck the underside of the bar with a thunderous effort.
Furthermore, the Indian skipper was involved in pretty much everything the visitors managed to produce on the night and could have easily added to his already impressive goal-scoring tally in international football.
There is an argument that Chhetri was wasteful and could have tucked away at least one of the chances presented to him, but it is hard to overlook his determination and grit that almost paid in dividends.