The day started even before it had begun. The buzz had been building since the last three days and the evening prior after the ‘high intensity’ practice session, the boys were already in the groove. Football stayed the talk – the AFC Challenge Cup had to ‘start on a positive note.’
On the field the pain of the Palestine match and the triumph of the Nehru Cup drove them – learn from the mistakes, get inspired from the positives.
India began their campaign in style as they beat Chinese Taipei 2-1 in their first match of the AFC Challenge Cup 2013 (Qualifiers) at the Yangon Training Centre on Saturday (March 2). Jewel Raja Shaikh put India in the lead in the 40th minute while substitute Robin Singh headed in the winner in the 91st minute. In between, Lee Tai Lin has equalised for Chinese Taipei in the 54th minute.
After a series of raids at the rival citadel, India finally surged ahead in the 40th minute. Jewel who was playing with one-twos with Chhetri with much aplomb slipped past the two rival Central defenders, trapped Chhetri’s through with poise and sent it past the rival goalkeeper Lun Kun Chi.
The last 15 minutes prior to the goal, it was all about India. In the 25th minute, Gouramangi Singh followed Clifford Miranda’s corner but his header deflected for a corner. The resultant two corners went abegging and then in the 38th minute, Mehtab Hossain’s long-ranger was fisted out.
The phase earned India five corners and debutant Gurjinder Kumar came agonisingly close to heading one in but the Almighty found it best to conspire against him – the ball hitting his top of the head and going the other way.
It wasn’t about the corners alone. India played to a plan and from the stands it seemed it was tactic-board football on the lush green. The synchronisation was just about perfect with everyone having two options as supports, be it wherever in the field. They were willing to roam around, slow it down, build it from the back and look for the runs and one-twos. Possession once gained was not to be lost. Taipei chased.
Earlier, India began on a cautious note. Not willing to let open much, they were content to play the waiting game. And then slowly, they took control. The midfield played among themselves allowing Chhetri and Jewel to time their runs. Francis Fernandes and Nirmal Chhetri did break free a couple of occasions down the right but the rival defence recovered in time.
This apart, India had two more chances – Raju Gaikwad’s throw in the 20th minute dipped alarmingly to beat all in the rival box but the flurry of legs didn’t allow any Blue to tap it in and then Mehtab Hossain was set up by Sunil Chhetri inside the rival box but the Taipei goalkeeper Lu Kun Chi anticipated it in time.
Taipei defended and depended on counters and much against the run of play had almost scored in the 11th minute but an alert Subrata Paul was acrobatic enough to tap over a Chen Yi Wei freekick from outside the box.
But the complexion changed almost immediately after resumption. Chinese Taipei equalised in the 54th minute – Lee Tai Lin heading in Su De Cai’s corner. The goal pushed the Indians on the backfoot and all of a sudden, Taipei, for a brief period, had a bit more of the possession.
But not for long! The Indians regrouped fast. AIFF Player-of-the-Year Syed Rahim Nabi replaced Francis Fernandes in the 68th minute and the Indians seemed to be playing all over by then. But with the entire Taipei team having fallen back by then, breaking through seemed difficult.
Wim Koevermans brought on Robin Singh in place of Jewel in the 82nd minute and with India attacking down the middle and the two flanks, the goal seemed inevitable.
The wait ended in the first minute of the extra time when Robin leaped high to head in Nabi’s centre from the right. India won 2-1, a “deserving win,” as Koevermans said at the post-match PC.
The fighting spirit of the boys and the manner they pressed till the dead end deserve praise. “It’s a big day for us. We need to win,” Chhetri had uttered the moment he had stepped out for the breakfast. And they did!
India next play Guam on March 4.
INDIA: Subrata Paul; Nirmal Chettri, Gouramangi Singh, Raju Gaikwad, Gurjinder Kumar; Francis Fernandes (Syed Rahim Nabi – 68th), Lenny Rodrigues, Mehtab Hossain, Clifford Miranda, Jewel Raja Shaikh (Robin Singh – 82nd), Sunil Chhetri (Captain).
(COURTESY: AIFF MEDIA)