India go down fighting to Saudi Arabia, exit Asian Games
Second-half goals from Mohammed Marran lead to 0-2 defeat in round of 16
Dogged, determined, disciplined. India were that for 51 minutes against Saudi Arabia in the round of the 16 at the Huanglong Sports Centre Stadium in Hangzhou on Thursday. It wasn’t pretty, it was never going to be but being able to look Saudi Arabia in the eye at half-time stemmed from a collective shift that would do all Indians proud.
But heart and effort can take you so far, proof of which lay in 0-2 defeat that ended India’s campaign in the Asian Games, the goals coming within six minutes off each other. And possibly Sunil Chhetri’s run in the continental showpiece event, when he came off for Rohit Danu in the 78t minute, though with him, you can never say for sure.
After the team returns and players go back to clubs, it will have to be seen how soon, and if at all, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) can get head coach Igor Stimac to stay on for at least two years after the 2024 Asian Cup.
As HT had written, India lined up a defence comprising only central defenders, the full complement of those who had travelled with the Asian Games squad. Lalchungnunga took up the right side, Chinglensana Singh and Sandesh Jhingan were in the middle and Narender Gahlot on the left. Stimac had warned against ceding space in the middle and proof of how compact India were came in Saudi Arabia being forced into speculative efforts from range.
One of them, from Musab Aljuwayr who is Neymar Jr’s teammate at Al-Hilal, rocked the horizontal in the 22nd minute but Saudi Arabia nearly being third time lucky from outside the penalty area was something India would have taken any time. By then, India had had the match’s first corner-kick and the first shot on target, a left-footer from Sunil Chhetri more in hope than anything else.
Hope. It grew as Amarjit Singh Kiyam marshalled the midfield to suck oxygen out of Saudi Arabia build-ups. And India putting in a few of what Sir Alex Ferguson would call “tasty tackes” through Gurkirat Singh and Rahim Ali. With Ali staying back, Saudi Arabia couldn’t work the right side and barring once when he beat Lalchungnunga for pace, left-back Zakaria Hawsawi too was reined in. It still took two stellar blocks from Jhingan and one save from Dheeraj Singh to keep it 0-0 at half-time but it had also It frustrated Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Asiri into kicking the ball and being booked.
It stayed goalless till Mohammed Marran slotted himself between Jhingan and Chinglensana Singh six minutes into the second half. The Al-Nassr forward, who had scored against Vietnam and had an assist against Mongolia, rose to meet Mohammed Abu Al Shamat’s delivery from the right with a smart header. Six minutes later, Saad Fdahad Al Naseer swivelled one way, his marker another, before finding Marran again with only the goalkeeper to beat.
Trailing 0-2, Stimac made attacking changes. Bryce Miranda was brought on for Ali who had run his legs off and central defender Chinglensana Singh taken off for forward Azfar Noorani, the only player in the squad who plays in the I-League for Gokulam Kerala. But such was the gulf in class – even though Saudi Arabia only had players born this century at the Games – that India couldn’t push players up which was why Miranda once had to play it back because there was no one in front to pass to.
Because by then, Saudi Arabia were threatening through the middle and substitute Hussain Alsibyani was scorching the left side. It needed every bit of the fight India put up – encapsulated by two more Jhingan interceptions, Lalchunnunga shielding the ball from Alsibyani and Dheeraj pulling off a string of saves – to dam what would otherwise have been a deluge.