The Indians gave it their all. They chased down every ball with ferocious hunger, leaped high for every header and lunged to stop every through ball, but emerged second best to United Arab Emirates. India struggled to convert its chances as it slipped to a 2-0 loss to UAE in the AFC Asian Cup in Abu Dhabi on Thursday.
The Blue Tigers were undoubtedly the better team in the opening half. They attacked with hunger, defended with valour and looked imposing. They had two glorious chances to draw first blood but were undone by a momentary defensive lapse minutes from halftime.
AS IT HAPPENED | India 0 - 2 UAE
A long ball from the back saw Ali Mabkhout break free on the right flank and neither Anas Edathodika nor Sandesh Jhingan was able to decide who'd chase him down. Mabkhout made the most of their indecisiveness and ran between the two to race into the attacking third. He squared it for Khalfan Mubarak, who cleverly beat two defenders to unleash a clinical finish that sailed into the far post. The home crowd, which was drowned out by the boisterous Indian fans, was brought back to life.
Talisman Sunil Chhetri came within inches of bagging the equaliser the very next minute, but his attempt drifted agonisingly wide of the post.
RELATED | Stephen Constantine rues missed chances
It was Chhetri who won India its first real goal-scoring chance of the night. He stole the ball in midfield and played a delicate through ball to Ashique Kuruniyan with just the goalkeeper to beat. The winger tried to find the top corner but Khalid Eisa made sharp save to deny him. Jhingan had a chance soon after but his header flew wide.
Stephen Constantine's men went into the interval with a one-goal deficit but weren't to be written off. And a smart one-two saw them nearly restore parity 13 minutes after the resumption. Chhetri fed it to Udanta Singh in the box, who fired a thunderous strike that rattled the crossbar.
The forward line remained incisive and continued to regularly breach the attacking third, but the defence began to crack and struggled to defend its gaps. India remained in the hunt for the elusive equaliser but Mabkhout put the tie to bed with three minutes left on the clock. Al-Hammadi lobbed it to him down the centre and Mabkhout weaved past his marker to put it past a hapless Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
Jhingan almost pegged one back in injury time but his effort was denied by the crossbar and highlighted India's biggest flaw of the evening — the side's inability to convert its chances.
The loss will hamper India's chances of qualification but the side still has a chance of making it through. Currently second in Group A, India will face Bahrain in its last group clash in Sharjah.