Tactical session at airport, sleeping in a spa en route, reaching Hangzhou hours before kick-off without the full squad and taking on the hosts without a training session. Let down by those they would have expected support from, Igor Stimac and India walked out to defend the flag on Tuesday. And yet at half-time in their Asian Games opener at Huanglong Sports Center Stadium, they were on level terms against hosts China.
That was because in the first minute of first-half added time, Rahul KP first showed he could also challenge for a berth in the men’s relay squads and then the technique to aim for the near post without breaking stride. But 1-1 at half-time after Gurmeet Singh had saved a penalty was too good to last. As India players cramped and collapsed on the pitch – the consequence of long-haul flights, inadequate rest and possibly questionable pre-seasons – as Sumit Rathi, usually a third-choice central defender at Mohun Bagan Super Giant, struggled as left-back, China scored three goals in the last 20 minutes, including two by Tao Qianlongin the 72nd and 76th, to win 5-1.
“I am proud of my players. Judge them by what happened till the 72nd minute. Everything after that was beyond their control,” Stimac told HT over the phone from Hangzhou. “But we are in big problem with three players (Rathi, Lalchungnunga and Bryce Miranda) down with cramps and there could be a big risk of injury if they play on Thursday. And it is possible that three players will reach hours before the game on Thursday.”
Those three – Gurkirat Singh, Narender Gahlot and Aniket Jadhav – were involved in Asian club competitions on Monday and Tuesday. A fourth, Mohun Bagan Super Giant’s Deepak Tangri, may not come, said Stimac. Jeakson Singh was supposed to take Tangri’s place but the India head coach said he didn’t know if Kerala Blasters will allow him to travel. That means India could have 21 instead of 22 players available.
India now have to beat Bangladesh, whom they meet next in less than two days’ time, and Myanmar on September 24 to qualify for the round of 16. But for the shambles of a preparation that would have looked more achievable than it does now.
Lining up with players who have rarely played together, India could have been 0-3 down by the seventh minute. This being an age-specific competition, most players were under-24 but while the Indians had barely trained together, China had had a dozen games going into the Games opener. One of them, Xu Haoyang of Shanghai Shenhua, headed over as China pinned India in their 18-yard box. Singh legged out a header from Tan Long who has played in Major League Soccer and the second tier in USA. As central defenders Sandesh Jhingan and Lalchungnunga tried forging an understanding in real time, Long had another header from close in the seventh minute.
Singh, the Hyderabad FC goalkeeper, made another save in the 16th minute but India’s resistance was broken in the 17th when Gao Tianyi volleyed from close after Jhingan and Lalchungnunga’s abortive attempt to clear a corner-kick led to the ball falling kindly for the 25-year-old midfielder. A poor pass from midfielder Ayush Chhetri then forced Singh to bring down Long in the 23rd minute. Skipper Zhu Chenjie stepped up but Singh saved the penalty flying to his right.
Trying to stay compact defensively, India had a couple of half-chances in the first 30 minutes through Sunil Chhetri and Rahim Ali. By then, India had settled down somewhat. Bryce Miranda was working the left flank, Rahul had moved inside to add numbers in the middle where Amarjit Singh Kiyam and Ayush Chhetri were trying to prevent China from playing the out ball. Then from nowhere, Rahul got a goal that was also the first India, taking part in the football competition after nine years, had scored in Asian Games since 2010.
The four-touch move was set going by Singh, the ball coming to Rahul via Ayush Chhetri and right-back Abdul Anjukandan’s chip. Rahul turned on the afterburners leaving left-back Liu Yang trailing in his wake before beating goalkeeper Han Jiaqi, the ball going in after grazing the inside of the far post.
Miranda began the second half with a pull-back that Sunil Chhetri dragged wide in the 49th. Two minutes later, Dai Weijun made it 2-1 with a long-ranger as India delayed closing him down. Rahul running back to retrieve after a poor corner-kick encapsulated India’s fight till the 72ndt but things fell apart when Qianlong cushioned in Wang Haijan’s assist. Qianlong was again on the mark in the 76th after two players pounced on Jhingan and Hao Fang made it 5-1 running inside Rathi in 90+2.