Every fan of the Indian football team was in a mood of jubilation after the country's historic 4-1 victory against Thailand on Sunday evening. Ahead of kick-off against hosts UAE, there was excitement in everyone following the team. The nation believed that it was their moment. A victory would have meant that men in blue guarantee qualification to the knockout rounds. However, their challenge was not easy. They were up against a team who are above them in the FIFA rankings by a margin of 20 and at their home.
However, this young Indian team did not succumb to the occasion. Contrary to expectations, they decided to take the game to the opposition. The team played the majority of the match with tremendous energy and high spirits. The Indian team pressed high, recovered the ball as quick as possible and we're always looking to score goals.
The number of chances, India missed was almost a travesty. Early in the first half in a matter of minutes, Sandesh Jhinghan missed two glorious chances from two set pieces. In between them, Sunil Chhetri played a beautiful pass that set Ashique clear for a 1v1 but only for Khalid Essa to pull off incredible saves. Not long after, Anirudh Thapa put in a perfect cross for Sunil Chettri but the captain's header went straight into the goalkeeper's hand. With only five minutes left in the first half, Khalfan Mubarak scored for the hosts from a rather improbable angle and caught Gurpreet Singh Sandhu by surprise. Only a few moments later, Sunil Chettri had another golden opportunity to score but his shot went inches wide of the post.
The second half began with Stephen Constantine making an uncharacteristic attacking changing by bringing on Jeje instead of Halicharan Nazary. The move almost paid immediate dividends as the Cheeniyan attacker's shot brushed past the goalpost. A couple of minutes later, Udanta Singh hit the post. By now, Indian fans were certainly banging their head in frustration. There was a common sense of disbelief at how India had failed to score.
Later, the hosts found a second goal in dying minutes of the games through Ali Ahmed Makhout. While the game was done and dusted, India once again hit the post as an Emirates defender deflected a header from Sandesh Jhinghan. Ultimately, India lost the game 2-0 and there is all to play for each team in their respective final group games. But the scoreline was barely a true indicator of the match.
On another day, India could have easily won and by a significant margin. While the hosts dominated possession, most of it was non-dangerous areas and they were restricted to taking shots from long distances. Apart from the two goals, UAE only had one more decent chance in the entire match when Ismail Al Hamadi hit the woodwork.
Against a team like UAE who finished third in the previous edition, the fact that India are disappointed to lose and not content with not getting thrashed is an incredible step from the past. The fact that India could come and dominate them on their home soil speaks volumes about how far this team has come.
Lessons to learn
Quite clearly, it was just not India's day. Not one bit of luck favored the Blue Tigers throughout the game. However, Stephen Constantine's team certainly made the entire Nation extremely proud. Despite the impressive showing, there were lessons for India to learn from the game. The biggest was about taking their chances. In a game of such magnitude, a team cannot afford to miss so many chances. Sadly, India learned it the hard way.
The second lesson was about the defending. While the finish on the first goal was a freakish one, the move could have easily avoided. Majority of the blame falls on central defender Anas, who could have ended the attack by clearing the ball or just blocking the attacker. Instead, he just froze while being out of position.
Even in the second goal, the team lost focus and allowed the home team to increase their advantage. Concerns from defending set-pieces is an issue that caused India problems for a while and even cost the team in the victory against Thailand. Ahead of the all-important game against Bahrain, these are the prominent issues, India will have to work on.
Mentality will be tested
The match against Bahrain is all set to probably be India's most important ever. A victory will surely be enough to guarantee India qualification to the round of 16. Even a draw should do the job. Reaching the knockout stages is something that was unimaginable a few months ago. Even a week ago, a very few would have their money on making it to the next round. Even if India fail to make it, they have already done an incredible job in this tournament and helped the sport's growth take a massive leap in the nation.
However, this is a splendid opportunity that Sunil Chettri and his teammates are looking upon. It is something that will not come again easily. The players must embrace it and give everything to ensure their dreams come true.
Defeating Bahrain is a very realistic proposition for India. Considering the performances, India has put up against Thailand and UAE, there is no reason to believe that Constantine's side cannot win their final group game. However, their mentality will be put to test and whether they can handle the pressure will determine their future in the competition. How the team reacts to tonight's defeat will be important.
If the team can lift themselves up from the disappointment and retain the same energy as the previous two games remain to be seen. On Monday night, Blue Tiger's will need every bit of determination, resolve, and tenacity they have in their locker. If this young team can rise to the expectation, they can achieve the dream of a nation.
Despite the loss tonight, 1.2 billion people only have more reason to believe in them.