Pace, aggression and quality goals. Sunday's clash between India and Thailand had all the ingredients for a scrumptious game of football. And the seasoned Sunil Chhetri once again put up a jaw-dropping display to score two remarkable goals and steer India to an astounding 4-1 win against Thailand at Abu Dhabi's Al Nahyan Stadium.
The win takes India to the top of Group A in the AFC Asian Cup 2019 after the match between UAE and Bahrain ended in a draw on Saturday.
Chhetri's brace takes his international tally to 67 goals - two more than Lionel Messi. He thus becomes the second highest goalscorer among active footballers, only behind Cristiano Ronaldo who has 85.
Twenty-one-year-old Ashique Kuriniyan, playing his first Asian Cup game, was a delight to watch from the get-go. He showed great attacking intent and constantly motored down the left flank, leaving the Thai defence scrambling for cover. His persistence paid off when he won the Blue Tigers a penalty in the 26th minute after his shot inside the box clipped Theerathon Bunmathan's hand.
The referee from Hong Kong pointed to the spot and the oldest player on the pitch, Chhetri, took a bunch of calculated, conscious steps before slotting the ball into the left bottom corner to give India the early advantage.
The Indian lead didn't last too long as Thailand bounced back seven minutes later. Bunmathan redeemed himself with a fine free-kick that led to the equaliser. His pinpoint delivery found skipper Teerasil Dangda, who headed it past Indian captain Gurpreet Singh Sandhu to bring the game back on level terms.
The Thai attack grew in confidence post the goal and made repeated forays into the opposition box, staging relentless attacks, much to the joy of their 100-odd spirited fans. Chanathip Songkrasin, fondly known as the Thai Messi, was the architect in midfield with his electric runs and stunning footwork. The Indian defence, though not very efficient, got the job done and held on to ensure the scoreline remained 1-1 at the halfway stage.
Stephen Constantine's men couldn't have got off to a better start in the second half. The first play saw India break into a stunning counter with Udanta Singh racing down the right flank. He delivered a neat low cross into the box and Kuruniyan left it for the onrushing Chhetri who busted the back of the net with a sharp first-time attempt to restore India's lead, sending the full-throated travelling fans into a tizzy.
The goal gave the Indians a new-found sense of confidence and they went on to dictate the rest of the game. The next goal came in the 68th minute when Chhetri, who was omnipresent on the pitch, played in Udanta on goal. Unable to dodge his way past the defence, he cut back for Anirudh Thapa. Thapa, the youngest Indian on the pitch, had a fairly quiet first half but none of that mattered as he chipped the ball with finesse past the Thai custodian to make it 3-1.
India seemed to be heading to a spectacular win and substitute Jeje Lalpekhlua, who hadn't scored a single goal in the current Indian Super League season, put the tie to bed. Within two minutes of his introduction, he received the ball on the edge of the box and found the left top-corner with a lovely shot.
The Indians held on to the scoreline and recorded their biggest win in the AFC Asian Cup since the 3-1 win over Hong Kong in 1964. As the Indian fans' banner read, perhaps the Blue Tigers are no longer “sleeping giants.”
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