India got their best possible start in the Asian Cup by thrashing Thailand 4-1 in their first group match at the Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, 6th January.
This was India’s first victory in the tournament in 55 years and also the biggest winning margin in an Asian Cup match.
It was a game of two halves. Thailand made their opportunities count in the first half, while Indian players completely dominated the second period with three goals to their name.
There were so many concerns regarding this Indian team. Performances of some of the players came under scanner and not many were hoping for a winning start. But the players proved their doubters wrong with an exceptional performance against a formidable opponent.
India took the lead from a penalty through Sunil Chhetri in the 27th minute but Teerasil Dangda of Thailand equalised six minutes later.
India got their lead back again in the 47th minute from the same man. After that, India ran riot in the opponent’s half as Anirudh Thapa got his first goal for the country and Jeje Lalpekhlua ended his 10-month goal-less run with a sublime finish in the 80th minute, just two minutes after coming on to the pitch.
India, at least for now, lead the table with hosts UAE coming next in their plate. Let us look at the five talking points from the match.
#5 Defenders assure but need to be more cautious
There was a lot of concern about India’s defensive line-up before they came to the Asian Cup. Of course, the poor performance of Sandesh Jhingan in the Indian Super League and lack of game-time of Anas Edathodika was a headache.
But in the first match, both of them proved their doubters wrong. Not only the defenders stood tall in crunching moments, but their lion-hearted performance will surely boost India’s confidence ahead of the next match.
Among the two central defenders, Jhingan was particularly brilliant. He made some timely clearances and deft tackles to keep Thai players away. Anas was struggling in the initial period but quickly regained his confidence as the match went on. The performance of the two side-backs too was laudable, particularly Subhasish Bose, who was in sublime form with Mumbai City.
Credits should be given to defensive midfielder Pronay Halder. Pronay may be too physical at times, but he works very hard on the field. He won headers, made a lot of tackles to make the task easier for the back four.
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#4 India’s resurgence in the second half is a new strategy by the coach?
Against Jordan in a friendly match couple of months ago, India were too defensive in the first half, despite being capable of making attacks. The second half saw a spirited fight-back from the whole team and India could’ve won the game, had chances not been missed.
The same script followed against Thailand. Despite leading by one goal, they were making passes within their own half, allowing the opposition to attack them. Also, the Indians were losing the ball so cheaply to their opponents.
Their strategy changed in the second half and within 60 seconds, they got the reward. A beautiful and combined attack saw Chhetri score his and the team’s second goal. The kept the same attacking mindset and two more goals followed.
The question is, when India have this kind of brilliant youngsters, why they don’t play attacking football from the first half itself? Clearly this is a new strategy opted by the coach – wait and watch your opponents in the first half and kill them in the second when they are tired.
But this cannot be followed in every match. There will be opponents who will try to kill the match in the first half itself. The coach needs to be more cautious while formulating his strategy.
#3 Thailand lost the plot in the second
It is said that ranking doesn’t matter in International matches. It’s true, but not every time. We had seen Jordan upset defending champions Australia before India took the field. Even Thailand, who are ranked 21 places below India, were having all the fun in the first half. In the end, they have to leave the field hiding their faces.
They were making moves, creating chances, defending one or two loose balls that came in their away, yet conceded the first goal. Like true fighters, Thailand equalised within six minutes through a superbly taken free-kick.
They kept the possession and were always looking to find the gap. It’s now known what Milovan Rajevac told them but Thailand players were taking too much shot from distance in the first half. A few of them went near the target.
However, instead of pushing their opponents more in the second half, Thailand lost control of the game. They not only allowed their opponents to play within their half, but also ran short of ideas. Sometimes, it looked like they don’t belong to this tournament.
#2 India’s day of youngsters
We must give our due credit to Indian Super League for giving us so many young players a platform to rub shoulders with some bigger names of the game. Never in the history did India produce this kind of youngsters who are not only brave but showed maturity on the field.
With an average age of 25, this Indian team is the third youngest of this tournament. In their very first match, the Blue Tigers proved why they will not be considered a traveller this time. These youngsters have so much experience of playing a tough match, they know how to handle a situation and they reflected it brilliantly on the pitch against Thailand.
Anirudh Thapa, who is already one of the standout performers for Chennaiyin FC, scored his debut goal for the country in Asian Cup. The way he scored it was fascinating, to say the least. That pass from Udanta Singh was difficult and if Thapa received it, he would’ve been dispossessed.
Instead, Thapa took his time and smartly chipped the ball towards the goal. The presence of his mind and such maturity at the age of 20 is outstanding.
Ashique Kuruniyan too has developed himself so much in recent times. He was partnering Sunil Chhetri in the first half and had earned the penalty which gave India the vital lead. His pin-point crosses also helped the team immensely.
Udanta continued the same vein of form with his national colours has provided two assists, which is very natural to him, in the match. Last but not the least is Halicharan Narzary, who assisted Jeje Lakhpekhlua in the last goal.
#1 Captain, Leader, Legend
It might sound like a cliche, but those three words can sum up the phenomenon that Sunil Chhetri is. It's actually difficult to find words to describe him. His performance speaks for itself.
Though he was officially not wearing the captain’s armband against Thailand, every Indian player on the field knew who their captain was. A true leader doesn’t need a piece of cloth to let the world know who he is.
Chhetri once again came up with a superlative performance, as was expected from him. He is not someone who keeps the records in his mind. So when you tell him he just became the highest Indian scorer in this tournament, he will reply in the same calm manner.
Both of his goals on the evening were top notch. The first was crucial, given that India would take the lead. Chhetri took the penalty which reminded us of Neymar. Few short jogging steps and then a powerful placement, sending the goalkeeper the other way.
We may not forget his second goal anytime soon. It started with him, an overhead pass to Udanta, who ran down the line before crossing it to Kuruniyan. The Keralite was too ahead to receive the ball.
And then came Chhetri. He was following the movement right from the moment and scored with his first touch to give India the lead for the second time. Even the best players would fail to score that one, but Chhetri is an exception.
He even contributed to the third goal. A pin-point pass to Udanta ended up by the goal from Anirudh. He is carrying the nation’s hope on his shoulder and on the very first match, he showed what is capable of.
He has overtaken Lionel Messi to be second active international goal-scorer in the world.
Captain, Leader, Legend.