Sunil Chhetri’s Team India ends Asian Cup without a point or goal

And so it ended, without a goal scored and a point won. India went into the toughest group of the 2024 Asian Cup in terms of average ranking expecting nothing. Barring a limp first half against Uzbekistan, they put up a fight managing three goalless halves against higher-ranked teams. Omar Khrbin’s opportunistic strike in the 76th minute in the 0-1 loss to Syria on Tuesday prevented a fourth.

India’s forward #11 Sunil Chhetri leaves the pitch after being substituted (AFP)

The biggest scare for India in the first half didn’t come directly from a Syrian attack. Having successfully got his body between Pablo Sabbag and his goal, Sandesh Jhingan fell awkwardly and stayed down. After attention from the medical staff, Jhingan was unsteady on his feet. At that point, the television cameras turned to Igor Stimac and you didn’t need to be a lip reader by profession to understand that the India head coach was calling out to his trusted central defender and flicking his hand to inquire if Jhingan was okay. He was, only till half-time.

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The first action after half-time had Jhingan collapsing and asking to be substituted. It meant reorganisation at the back with Rahul Bheke moving into central defence and Nikhil Poojary taking his position at right back. Jhingan was solid as usual but it was Subhasish Bose who was excellent as his central defensive partner. A darting run back to deny Ibrahim Hesar after Lalengmawia Ralte lost possession was the best in an authoritative performance.

Unlike against Uzbekistan, where three soft goals sucked the jeopardy out of the match, India thwarted Syria with a combination of courage and defensive organisation. If Iraq’s Rebin Solaka’s tackle on Takuma Asano of Japan was the best of the 2024 Asian Cup, the one on Ajar Ramadan by Deepak Tangri would come close. The match also saw Gurpreet Singh Sandhu at the best he has been in the group league. His punches were strong and in the 18th minute, Sandhu got big on Sabbag and collected after leaving his line. Sabbag’s header of Syria’s first corner-kick needed Sandhu to get down and palm it away with both hands.

India’s first corner-kick, also the first of this group B tie, wasn’t half as dangerous as they couldn’t keep the ball in after playing short. That encapsulated India’s attacking efforts which ended with Udanta Singh’s delivery being too close to goalkeeper Ahmad Madanieh for Sunil Chhetri to make contact. After Mahesh Naorem had broken free needing a tag effort from defender Aiham Ousou and Madanieh, India managed half-chances such as a header from Chhetri that lacked power and a shot off target to end the first half.

The idea may have been to use the pace of the wide players on the break but India couldn’t match Syria’s physicality in the middle and the passes forward lacked precision. Introduced in the 64th minute to a loud applause from the large contingent of Indian fans, Sahal Abdul Samad too couldn’t change that in his first outing in this tournament.

For all their possession, Syria were not much better. Like India, they had not scored in the Asian Cup till Tuesday. That could have changed in the 62nd minute when Akash Mishra, instead of booting the ball out of danger, tried to control the ball and lost possession. It led to a Syrian cross which, unchallenged, Khrbin couldn’t head in.

The 2017 Asian Player of the Year, among 16 in Syria’s squad who play outside their country, made amends soon after. Ralte mistimed a tackle and that gave Syria time and space to build a move, one which involved Khrbin playing it wide to Hesar, receiving the ball and stroking it home. His shirtless celebration and Mishra burying his face in his palms summed up the ecstasy and agony on his hot afternoon at Al Bayt Stadium.

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