AFC Asia Cup: Blue Tigers fight it out before going down to Australia
DOHA — India held on grimly for 50 minutes before going down to indomitable Australia 0-2 in their opening Group B match of the AFC Asian Cup 2023 at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium on Saturday.
India, who displayed remarkable grit and determination in the first half to keep their rampaging rivals at bay, had to lay down their weapon for the first time in the 50th minute when experienced goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu failed to grab a cross from the right by Martin Boyle.
Instead, Sandhu, in his third Asian Cup campaign, palmed away the ball lightly, only for Jackson Irvine to slam it home with his left. With his hands stretched and a relieved smile on his face, there was a hint of vindication in Irvine’s celebrations; the Aussies, perhaps, didn’t expect the 102-ranked side to hold on for so long.
For India, on the other hand, it was a soft goal conceded because Indian defenders fought gallantly and creditably to keep the door shut on the Australian attackers till then.
Once the sluice gate opened, the Australians found the second goal in the 74th minute when two substitutes, Riley McGree and Jordan Bos, combined to leave the Indian defenders stranded, with the latter finishing the job in the end.
Playing against Australia, ranked 25 in the FIFA ranking, is always a tough battle. At the same time, India knew it was also their moment of glory, a stepping stone towards achieving the dream of crossing swords with the best in the world. As the two captains, Sunil Chhetri and Mathew Ryan shook hands with Japanese referee Ms. Yamashita Yoshimi, Indian coach Igor Stimac could be seen keeping an eagle-eyed watch on his wards. On the pitch, Lallianzuala Chhangte offered a quick prayer while going down on his knees.
The large number of Indian fans present at the ground must have felt proud and encouraged by the fact that the Blue Tigers, though beaten, were not overwhelmed by their mighty rivals and chose to fight by looking into their eyes.
Yet, overall, Australia were the better side, as they forced India to play second fiddle for most of the encounter. Barring a chance in the 15th minute, when a well-placed skipper Sunil Chhetri failed to make the best use of a heading opportunity, the Indians could hardly keep Ryan busy under the Australia bar. On the other side, the Indian defence remained the most overworked lot; their exhaustion was apparent as a couple of them slumped on the pitch when the referee blew the whistle for half-time, which was extended by at least six minutes of add-on time.
Initially, India began well, but slowly the Australians took over the reins of the match. As the half-hour mark approached, the game slowly shifted to India’s half. The Aussies parked themselves in and around India’s penalty area; the fact that they earned a dozen corners was a testimony of their dominance.
Still, Sandesh Jhingan, Nikhil Poojary, Deepak Tangri and company fought like real warriors and the Australians had to wait till the second half to produce the night’s first decisive moment. Jhingan, with a bandage on his forehead, played like a brave heart; Stimac’s boys looked a truly committed lot, single-minded in their approach to keeping the battle going.