Back in the AFC Asian Cup after an eight-year wait, the Blue Tigers kicked-off their campaign in Asia’ elite footballing tournament in style with a 4-1 win over Thailand.
The superb performance in the second half sealed it for India. Some tacky play in the attacking third, non-stop pressing and some no-nonsense defending stayed the highlights.
With the pairing of Sandesh Jhingan and Anas commanding the backline, the Blue Tigers’ defensive compactness in the early minutes proved to be stubborn.
India closed down quicker in the midfield, not allowing their players time on the ball. It only provided the time for the likes of Ashique Kuruniyan and Anirudh Thapa to dictate play in an attacking stance. And although Thailand dominated possession, India had the better of the chances and showed bright signs around the opponent’s 18-yard box.
Ashique Kuruniyan’s pace and tackiness down the left wing gave India an opportunity to score as early as the 3rd minute, but his cross, flashed in front of goal, with no Indian bodies able to make contact.
India surged into the lead in the 27th minute. A quick throw-in by Sunil Chhetri on the left flank released Ashique on the flanks and the latter burst through the Thai defence to earn a penalty kick, courtesy a handball by Thailand’s’ Theerathon. Chhetri, as composed as ever, converted from the spot.
But the Tigers could not hold to the lead for long. In the 33rd minute, Thailand equalized after Teerasil Dangda’s header crashed into the Indian net from a free-kick.
Minutes into the second half, India were back on top with a 2-1 lead after Chhetri scored a stunner off a cross from Udanta Singh which Ashique failed to make a contact with. Chhetri, hence, took his tally to 67 international goals.
India regained their aggressive composure in the second half creating four more chances at goal 15 minutes into the game as against Thailand’s one. And their efforts reaped rewards when Anirudh Thapa became the youngest Indian goalscorer in AFC Asian Cup history. In the 68th minute, Chhetri played the early ball to Udanta, who failed to find the space to pull the trigger and instead passed the ball to Thapa who dinked it over the keeper to make it 3-1
Chhetri almost scored his hat-trick in the 63rd minute when Thailand’s goalkeeper Bootprom muffed a cross from Udanta, only an onrushing Chhetri’s effort was saved for a corner.
By then it was all India in the midfield. The combination for the third one in the 68th minute was a marvel to watch. Following an exquisite defence-splitting pass from Chhetri, Udanta teed-off Anirudh Thapa in the box for the latter to chip into the net over two helpless Thai defenders and the goalkeeper.
Substitute Jeje’s strike in the 80th minute sealed the fate for India. He received it from Halicharan on the top of the box, turned in a flash and placed it with the edge of his boot.
India next play face hosts UAE in their second match of the tournament on January 10.
INDIA: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu (GK) (C); Subhashish Bose, Sandesh Jhingan, Anas Edathokida, Pritam Kotal; Ashique Kuruniyan (78’- Jeje Lalpekhlua), Pronay Halder (87’ – Germanpreet Singh), Anirudh Thapa (78’ – Rowllin Borges), Udanta Singh, Halicharan Narzary, Sunil Chhetri.