There were a total of 18 attempts made on goal during India’s Group A match against the UAE in the AFC Asian Cup off which five were on target. Three belonged to India and one of those that were ‘not on target’ had been Udanta Singh’s shot that struck the underside of the crossbar and landed inches away from the goal line before bouncing back into the field of play. All these numbers indicate an even contest, except for the one that matters the most – the scoreline, which said that India had lost the match 2-0.
Fans and players would say that football is a game that can fill with you a sense of euphoria and despair like few other activities can. In the case of those that follow Indian football, despair has been the more prevalent emotion over the years but on Thursday, they were made to question their loyalty towards the sport itself. India were making the opposition – a team placed nearly 20 spots above them on the FIFA rankings – sweat for a better part of the match and yet, their goal difference was slashed by two at the end of it. The Blue Tigers have been a revelation at the Asian Cup. They came into the tournament with question marks hanging on every part of the pitch. Will Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s tendency to make mistakes flare up? Will the likes of Sandesh Jhinghan, Anas Edathodika and Pritam Kotal bring their poor club form to UAE? How will the Indian midfield survive against the physically superior teams in their group? Who apart from Sunil Chhetri can be depended upon for scoring goals?
These questions remained valid for much of the first half of their opening match against Thailand but the second half brought with it a side that, it would be safe to say, Indian fans have never seen. The through balls were finding their intended targets, the long balls and crosses were falling closer to Indian feet and heads instead of on empty grass, and most importantly, the shots were finding the intended target.
The latter, though was not the case during the UAE game, something that India would be heartbroken about and take heart from at the same time. The words, ‘they could have won it by four goals’ is what fans were left with at the end of it. But those were words that they wouldn’t have dared to utter before this tournament started. This means that on Monday, when they will make their way to the Sharjah Stadium or settle themselves in front of their televisions, cell-phones and laptops, they will do so with a very real possibility of seeing their team go through to the next round.
India’s final group stage opponents are Bahrain, who had played seven games during the 2018 international friendly windows – the most among any teams playing in the Asian Cup. They had a rather disappointing run in November before three convincing wins in December (5-0 vs Tajikistan, 1-0 vs Lebanon and 4-0 vs North Korea) gave them a lift ahead of the tournament.
Like India, Bahrain ended their match against UAE feeling like they have been robbed of a win. They were leading 1-0 for much of the game and looked the better team before the hosts were rather controversially given a penalty and the match ended 1-1. They faced Thailand in their next match, who themselves were smarting from the wounds of the 4-1 hiding they received at the hands of India. Bahrain dominated possession and had a better rate of success with respect to passes but the match ended in a 1-0 loss for them.
One could expect India to do what Thailand did, and indeed what the Blue Tigers have done in the two matches they have played so far, which is to defend and hit Bahrain on the counter. Constantine won’t be making too many changes to the squad but Rowlin Borges could expect a starting spot on Monday. Bahrain are bound to be a superior force physically to India and an extra pair of defensive legs in midfield would come handy.
The equation is rather simple for India – if they beat Bahrain in their final group stage game, they are through. If one goes by the history between these two sides India don’t stand a chance. But Stephen Constantine’s men have defied history, both recent and the fairly distant, to put themselves in this position.