It wasn’t an ‘entertaining’ viewing, as the Indian men’s head coach Igor Stimac would later say after his team narrowly beat Bangladesh 1-0 in the Asian Games here at the Xiaoshan Sports Centre Stadium on Thursday.
But a win will do for India after its 1-5 loss to China in the opening Group A game two days ago.
It seemed like India would be left to rue its missed opportunities – a staggering four of them in 10 seconds – but skipper Sunil Chhetri stepped up when Bangladesh gifted a chance from the penalty spot.
Chhetri did not have a full pre-season because he was on paternal leave, and Stimac did not want to play the 39-year-old for 85 minutes against China and 94 minutes against Bangladesh. However, circumstances left him with no choice.
“I wouldn’t take him out. Simple as that. He is important to us. And for these young boys as the skipper and the leader to communicate to them what needs to be done on the pitch. The penalty came, and obviously, he is there to take charge,” said Stimac.
And Chhetri was there till the end. He hugged his marker in the fourth minute of added time and then sprinted full tilt to chase down the clearance from his box. He only stopped at the final whistle.
In the context of everything that has happened in India’s Asian Games campaign so far, this is an important result, which puts it level on points with Myanmar but behind it on goal difference.
Stimac had four more reinforcements who joined the squad on Wednesday.
Chinglensana Singh came into the XI at left-back as part of three changes from the China game. Dheeraj Singh, who replaced Gurmeet Singh in goal, had a superb outing, making a crucial intervention and a save by coming off the line in the second half, and attacker Rohit Danu played in a withdrawn role in what seemed like a 4-3-3 formation.
It was a cagey opening 45 minutes, with both teams struggling with their final passes in the attacking third. Bryce Miranda got into promising positions on the left flank, but his crossing was wayward. When he finally got one right in the stoppage time of the first half, Chhetri, Rahul KP and Anjukandan Rabeeh - all lined up to find their way past Mitul Marma and a barrage of Bangladesh bodies but failed to do so.
Bangladesh had the better exchanges in the second period, which provided India a scare at the back. Their midfield stifled India, which left Chhetri isolated and frustrated up top.
In the 55th minute, Dheeraj was alert to come off his line to sweep up a loose ball at the edge of his box and again in the final quarter, when Mojibor Jony got the better of Lalchungnunga one-on-one inside the penalty box, the Indian shot-stopper narrowed the angle against his shot at goal.
Then, out of nowhere, Bangladesh skipper Rahmat Mia brought down Miranda inside the Bangladesh box with a clumsy tackle, and the referee awarded a penalty to India.
In the 85th minute, Chhetri stepped up, took his time and slotted it away from the reach of Marma to put India ahead. As is the norm, the 39-year-old turned away from the goal head down and walked back to the centre circle with the task of seeing out the lead.
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