FOUGHT HARD BUT LOST. Graceful, gallant losers. These words have been used to describe the Indian team for years, to the point that it has become a stereotype.
Maybe those words can be used again to describe India's perfomance against UAE, which resulted in a 0-2 loss at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi. Maybe India can be seen as a charismatic upstart, the romantic underdog, that tried hard to reach for the moon but was cut down to size in the end.
But for the fans who have been keenly observing this team for years, that's a gross mischaracterization of what happened tonight. What the Blue Tigers showed the nearly twenty thousand Indians who had showed up to incessantly shout the name of their country for ninety minutes, turning the foreign landscape into a piece of their homeland, were glimpses of possibilities that few expected to see from this team when it flew out to take part in the Asian Cup.
For the tournament organizers, this game was nothing short of a jackpot. The host nation was going up against one of the biggest expat communities in the country. Apart from the built-in local appeal, interest in this game skyrocketed when India put a beating on Thailand in the first game and UAE failed to beat Bahrain. What was perceived as a given three points for UAE suddenly became a competitive proposition.
The tickets sold out a day prior to the match. Friday being a holiday, a Thursday night fixture was easy for the working populace to attend. The result: hordes of Indians bought tickets as even more travelling supporters made the trip to Abu Dhabi. In order to maintain parity of support, the UAE football association had to purchase 5,000 tickets and distribute them among domestic fans for free. But despite all that, the Indian fans ended up slightly outnumbering the UAE fans.
As the teams walked into the pitch for the match to begin, the setting looked like it came out of an Indian football fan's dream. India were about to take on a strong team, in a big tournaent, at a sold out arena in a high profile match, with a strong overseas support that any team in the world would be proud to have.
Regardless of the result, India were about to leave a mark, on the tournament as well as the millions who were taking notice worldwide.
The Blue Tigers were not bogged down by the enormity of this occasion. They began on the offensive. Constantine had fielded the same eleven that had started against Thailand. So it was once again a case of Sunil up front with Aashique Kuruniyan just behind him.
The opponents being UAE, Sunil Chhetri was particularly attentive of his defensive duties. He was dropping down at the slightest hint of the midfield coming under pressure, leaving Aashique as the lone frontman.
But he didn't need to worry that much. At least not in the starting stages. India began dominant. In terms of speed, passing abilities and creating chances. They earned the first set pieces and had the first couple of genuine chances. First, it was Udanta Singh taking on two defenders, Alhasan Saleh Easa and Ismael Ahmed Mohamed, on a world class dribbling tour. Then it was Sandesh Jhingan getting two close opportunities that on another night he could have buried into the net.
About ten minutes in, pressure on the UAE defence was mounting. And India were running the game from the central midfield with through balls. Who would have thought?
UAE got a hold of themselves, though. It was around the 17th minute when Salmin and Amer started pushing the Indian players back into their own half. Bandar Mohamed found Mabkhout with a beauty of a ball but Pritam Kotal was there to make the block. India immediately countered but Sunil's well timed shot was saved brilliantly by Khalid Elsa Bilal.
As the UAE midfield kept more possession and tried to gain control of the game, India's game went through a quick transformation. For a short period of time they switched to a game of long balls and headers in an attempt to interrupt the opponents' rhythm.
Sunil, now playing close to the midfield again, sent a brilliant ball ahead for Aashique to chase down but Ismail ran along with the Indian attacker and cleared it for a corner.
At this point, India had started to trail badly in the possession stat, but were still creating opportunities in regular intervals, some actually better than the home team. The game was still goalless.
But that changed just before half-time. Mabkhout found Khalfan Mubarak Al Shamsi with a cross, and the latter ran into a pocket of open space inside the Indian box. A rare lapse from the Indian defence, and it made them pay the price. Gurpreet didn't stand a chance. UAE took the lead.
Immediately afterwards, Sunil Chhetri caught the UAE defence napping and invaded the opponent box. His shot beat the keeper but missed the target by barely an inch. India went into the break 1-0 down.
To begin the second half, Stephen Constantine brought on Jeje as the other striker, pushing Aashique to the left wing and bringing Halicharan off.
And India began the second half as strongly as they began the first. Anirudh Thapa's free kick got a header off a defender and ended up with Jeje who chested it down and let fly... just wide.
Then it was Jeje who set up Udanta for a golden opportunity that had the UAE keeper off position. Udanta's shot came off the crossbar.
With India missing chances, UAE successfully survived their early-half jitters and slowly regained their familiar rhythm of controlling the game through possession. Constantine introduced Rowlin Borges to the game to disrupt UAE's midfield. The Indian defence started committing more fouls. But UAE remained unshaken. In fact, they got a golden opportunity to get their second when Al Hammadi fired from close range beating Gurpreet but the ball came off the crossbar. And with just two minutes left on the clock, Ali Ahmed Mabkhout doubled the lead for UAE. Then, as if to sum up the night, India hit the crossbar again just before the game ended.
In the end, it was a loss for India. It's nothing unexpected. UAE went to the top of the group with 4 points, while India dropped to second with 3, with Thailand closely behind with the same number of points. Thanks to a positive goal difference, India have every chance of qualifying for the second round if they put on a good show against Bahrain.
The loss itself wasn't the setback. The real loss that India suffered in this game was the wastage of a gigantic potential.
India showed up to a game where no one gave a chance and showed glimpses of a side that could bring the fight to any opponent, regardless of how tough the battle. They showed they could change their style of play according to situation, respond well to pressure and always be dangerous, even against the strongest teams in the group.
India showed that they could carry themselves with pride on the biggest of stages and can get thousands to rally behind them, even on a land distant from their home.
India signalled to world football that they had arrived, that their players were already capable of doing much more than they were thought capable of.
And the wildest dreams of Indian football fans, of getting a big result against a marquee team in a big tournament, came closer to becoming a reality than it had been for decades.