Ten minutes had passed in the second half when Udanta Singh received a ball on the top of the UAE box. Udanta laid it off for Sunil Chhetri on his left and continued to dash forward. Such is the understanding between the Bengaluru FC teammates that Chhetri did not need to look up to find Udanta. The quick one-two between them opened up the UAE defence and released Udanta on goal. His fierce right footer beat goalkeeper Khalid Eisa Bilal, but crashed to the underside of the bar and out of play.
This was the closest India had come to scoring a goal against the world’s 79th- ranked team in their second group stage match of the Asian Cup. They had created numerous chances – defender Sandesh Jhingan had failed to hit the target from an open header; Chhetri had missed two chances, including a header from close range; Ashique Kuruniyan couldn’t beat Bilal from a one-on-one opportunity.
UAE, on the other hand, did not get as many chances. But the few they created were enough to beat India 2-0 and go top of Group A in the Asian Cup, putting them in a comfortable position to qualify for the Round of 16. India will need to get at least a point against Bahrain in their last group match on Monday and hope Thailand lose to UAE to earn a direct entry into the knockout rounds.
The manner in which India approached the game seemed like a continuation of their second-half performance against Thailand four days ago. They sat deep in their own half in the opening 10 minutes to ensure they did not concede an early goal. Constantine set up his team in a 4-4-2 formation, but he narrowed the field by positioning the players close to each other. Consequently, UAE were forced to go wide every time they ventured forward and India’s full backs were successful stopping the crosses from going in.
As the minutes ticked by, India began playing with more intent. Their midfield started to press a lot higher and the pressure they created resulted in plenty of turnovers in the centre. Udanta’s pace on the right and Kuruniyan’s work-rate up front created plenty of problems for the UAE defence. The duo was crucial in creating multiple opportunities but India lacked the sharpness and composure needed to score a goal. It didn’t help that Chhetri, India’s target man up front, was having a rare bad day at work. He was often guilty of over-running with the ball while his passes and shots never found the range.
Even though India created more chances, UAE took the lead from a defensive error just four minutes before half time. India failed to react to a long ball played inside their box. Anas Edathodika could not make the clearance and Khalfan Mubarak’s shot went past Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. It was a soft goal to concede, killing the momentum India had created.
India never could create as many chances in the second half. Majed Hassan, who came on as a second-half substitute, made sure UAE bossed the midfield and India were never allowed to string together a meaningful move. Ali Ahmed Mabkhout sealed the win for UAE in the 88th minute. India had a chance to pull one back in stoppage time. But his header off a free-kick hit the crossbar.
It was one of those nights where India did almost everything, apart from finding back of the net.