The last time India won a match at the Asian Cup, Lal Bahadur Shastri was exactly a week away from taking oath as the country’s second Prime Minister. Neil Armstrong was just another NASA scientist undergoing desert-survival training in Nevada. And internet was still at an early conceptual stage, while the world was wowed by IBM’s revolutionary 8-bit System 360 computers.
So long has it been, in fact, that the world map has transformed – the country where India won the match in 1964, Israel, isn’t even a part of Asia anymore. Fifty four years had passed since India beat any team on Asia’s biggest stage. The two campaigns since the 1964 Asian Cup had been pitiful – two draws in 1984 were followed by a 27-year exile, which ended with the team getting marauded in the 2011 edition.
But a jaunty bunch of millenials, led by a player who is making a strong case for being India’s GOAT, changed it all with an eye-popping performance on Sunday. Sunil Chhetri’s brace along with Anirudh Thapa’s composed chip and Jeje Lalpekhlua’s fabulous toe-poke from outside the box guided India to a resounding 4-1 win over Thailand, widely considered to be one of Asia’s fastest-improving teams.
The scarcely-believable scoreline is India’s highest victory margin at the Asian Cup, eclipsing the 3-1 win over Hong Kong in 1964, which was, incidentally, the last time the team had won at the continental championship. “Bloody brilliant,” Chhetri said about “the way my team went about things.”
It was a sentiment many could relate to. It wasn’t hoof-and-hope football that India have played while gatecrashing into the top-100 of the world. In fact, they were quick, assured and incisive – especially in the second half. It’s a style that the South-East Asian giants have made their own while challenging the regional heavyweights. But as the match progressed on Sunday, India were, in a way, out-Thailanding Thailand.
Chhetri’s two goals – a penalty and a sweet finish to a lightening counterattack – that made him India’s highest goal-scorer at the Asian Cup will be talked about for long. But for once, India didn’t look like depending solely on him for inspiration. There were meritorious performances everywhere.
Ashique Kuruniyan, the 21-year-old midfielder who plays for Pune City, was positioned a yard behind Chhetri in the forward line. But he came up with a performance of his lifetime, winning second balls, holding play for others to join the attack, throwing challenges and drawing fouls. His graft earned India a penalty in the 27th minute, which Chhetri slotted to goalkeeper Chatchai Bootprom’s right to give his team a surprise lead.
That goal came against the run of play as India, despite starting well, seemed to have surrendered themselves to Thailand’s technical superiority. After that goal, Thailand became even more dangerous. Playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin created angles with his passes that India weren’t able to read; midfielder Thitiphan Puangjan constantly tested Gurpreet Singh Sandhu – the captain for the night – with his powerful long-range shots; and forward Teerasil Dangda repeatedly snuck past the two Indian central defenders.
Their pressure ultimately paid off, with Dangda heading home the equaliser in the 37th minute from a free-kick. By the time both teams walked back to the dressing rooms at halftime, India looked overworked and tired even though Thailand didn’t look at their best.
Second half transformation
But in the second period, India were a completely different team to the one that has been playing all these years under Stephen Constantine. The two full-backs, Pritam Kotal and Subhashish Bose, pushed up to support the attack. Udanta Singh started to operate in the channel on the right, his pace proving too hot for Thailand to handle. Thapa, the 20-year-old midfielder, began to show more control over the ball and Chhetri would drop back time and again to link-up the young midfield. Constantine, who often gets the stick over his selections, seemed to have got his formation spot on as India began to play with the kind of control and freedom that has barely been seen before.
In the 47th minute, Udanta went past the Thai defence with a pacey run down the right and crossed the ball inside the box. Kuruniyan’s clever first-time flick found Chhetri, whose right-footed finish put India ahead for the second time. Unlike the first half, India looked more confident after the goal. Chhetri and Udanta were at the heart of the move that led to the third goal in the 68thminute.
Chhetri’s beautiful-weighted through ball fell to his Bengaluru FC teammate’s feet. Udanta was pushed a little wide, but just when it looked like the move wouldn’t result into anything, he found space to square the ball to Thapa, who showed composure beyond his years to chip it past an onrushing goalkeeper.
Constantine brought Jeje Lalpekhlua on for Kuruniyan in the 79th minute. The Chennaiyin striker was benched owing to his pathetic form, which had seen his goal drought enter the tenth month. But with his first shot, Lalpekhlua beat the goalkeeper to triple India’s advantage. It was one of those halves where everything India tried seem to work.
The win puts them on top of Pool A after the two other teams, UAE and Bahrain, played out an insipid 1-1 draw on Saturday. It also catapults them into contention for a round of 16 spot, considering four best third-placed teams across the six groups also go through. That, though, might be looking far to ahead in the future.
Thailand looked an opponent beyond India’s reach before kickoff. Next up for them, hosts UAE, on Thursday.
Jordan stun holders Australia 1-0
Al Ain: Australia’s Asian Cup title defence suffered a huge blow on Sunday when they were stunned 1-0 by Jordan in their worst ever start to the competition. Graham Arnold’s youthful side had confidently predicted victory in their Group B opener but they were undone by Anas Bani-Yaseen’s powerful first-half header. Australia, who had 76 percent of possession but only six shots on target, were thwarted by a brilliant double save from Jordan’s Amir Shafi in the game’s dying moments.