Asian Cup: India, gritty in defence, lose 0-2 to Australia | Football News - Hindustan Times

Asian Cup: India, gritty in defence, lose 0-2 to Australia

Jan 13, 2024 07:19 PM IST

India held the title contenders goalless in the first half and showed fight before and after the Aussies cashed in on two lapses in their opening Group B tie

So stout was India’s resistance for 50 minutes that Australia needed a slice of luck to get their first goal. Jackson Irvine scored after a clanger from Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. Shipping such a goal could have deflated India but they kept denying vastly superior opponents through a combination of disciplined defending and grit. That continued even after Jordan Bos’ strike from a slick move that showed why Australia have said they are in Qatar to win the Asian Cup.

Australia's Jordan Bos celebrates scoring their second goal with teammates(REUTERS)
Australia's Jordan Bos celebrates scoring their second goal with teammates(REUTERS)

Embrace the challenge, Igor Stimac had said prior to the game. Stimac was a no-frills defender unafraid to look illustrious opponents in the eye, his attitude symptomatic of Croatia’s when they took the 1998 World Cup by storm. Going into five years as India head coach, Stimac has moulded a bunch of bravehearts who try to bridge the obvious gap in skill with an abundance of spirit. In 2019, India had done that once in Doha against Asian champions Qatar.

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Sandhu had led from the back in that game. He looked assured at Doha’s Ahmad bin Ali Stadium on Friday as well, bravely leaving his line to collect and bossing his 18-yard box. On either side of two bloopers, that is. The first situation, in the 21st minute, Sandhu salvaged by getting back to deny Connor Metcalfe after slipping while trying to break Australia’s press. The second put Australia ahead.

Martin Boyle, always a threat on the right, floated a speculative cross which, under no pressure, Sandhu could have grabbed using both hands. Instead, he flapped at it and the ball fell kindly for Irvine. Australia could have scored through Boyle after he had ghosted in or when he had volleyed over and it wouldn’t have felt like such an anti-climax when they finally did.

It is also a measure of how good Sandhu has been for India in over a decade that barring a blip against Bangladesh in 2019, it is difficult to pick a howler in his international career. Ditto his club career, though an error in the 2023 Super Cup final and a heavy touch in the season’s ISL opener against Kerala Blasters come to mind.

On Friday, Irvine was asked if there was any Indian player his team had taken notice of. The midfielder said Australia would rather focus on their team. But for even regular followers of the India team, Deepak Tangri wouldn’t be a name to reckon with simply because the defensive midfielder had never played for India. Had Jeakson Singh been fit, Tangri may not have travelled. But against the world's 25th ranked team which has won the Asian Cup, Tangri put in a shift as industrious as it was excellent.

With two banks of four, India defended not allowing Australia to deliver a storm of crosses Stimac had predicted. Manvir Singh hung back and pulled off a superb sliding tackle and kept the significantly bigger Harry Souttar away from the 14 corner-kicks Australia got. That Australia didn’t convert their corner-kicks or any of the three free-kicks in dangerous positions would be among the positives Stimac would take into games against Uzbekistan and Syria. “Full credit to India for their determination and fight,” Reuters quoted Australia coach Graham Arnold as saying. “They are well-coached.”

India struggled to get the ball forward but with a bit of luck could have scored. Lallianzuala Chhangte’s speed caused Gethin Jones problems early and in the 16th minute, India, after circulating the ball from left to right, had Nikhil Poojary floating a cross that fell between Souttar and Jones, but which Sunil Chhetri could not head on target.

In the 69th minute, a challenge from behind on Keanu Baccus had the ball straying towards an untenanted Australia goal before veering away. Four minutes later, Bos scored with a calm finish after Riley McGree cut in and found him in space created by a smart run from Bruno Fornaroli that dragged a defender away. Three substitutes combining to get the insurance goal is proof of Australia’s strength in depth.

That Australia didn’t score more would worry Arnold but please Stimac who was seen smiling near the end with assistant Mahesh Gawli and Trevor Sinclair. “Lot of things to learn from this game. Some of the things we are proud of,” said Sandesh Jhingan, who braved a first-half head injury to play on, in a flash interview.

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    Dhiman Sarkar is based in Kolkata and has been a sport journalist for over three decades. He writes mainly on football.

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