Even for Sunil Chhetri, this was a bridge too far to cross. He ran himself to the ground, pressing the Saudi Arabian defenders as they passed the ball around with ease. It was a sorry sight as Chhetri hardly had any backup from the others.
In the 74 th minute, with India trailing 0-2, he looked towards the bench with his hands on his hips, asking to be taken off. The skipper, at 39, had given it all in the last two weeks, but there was nothing more he could do to influence the proceedings. He walked off the pitch three minutes later, signalling the end to India’s eventful football campaign in Hangzhou.
“We gave a good fight but it’s not just about fighting at this level. We need to do more,” an exasperated Chhetri said as the Indian men exited the Asian Games after a 0-2 defeat to Saudi Arabia at the Huanglong Sports Centre Stadium. And it could have been more if not for Sandesh Jhingan’s interceptions, Dheeraj Singh’s saves, and Saudi’s poor finishing.
AS IT HAPPENED: India vs Saudi Arabia, Asian Games 2023 Highlights
While the scoreline might read respectable, the context surrounding the two teams told a whole other story. This was not a Saudi Arabian team put together two weeks ago like India did. This was an all U-24 Saudi squad that is aiming to play in next year’s Olympics. The team has been playing together for two years under coach Saad Ali el Shehri, who has been the U-23 coach since 2016. They have played in multiple tournaments together and they outmatched the Indians in every aspect of the game – technical quality, speed, and work-rate.
This Indian group had its first team meeting on the flight to China last week and a first training session only after they had played three games in Hangzhou.
Only for the first 20 minutes, India looked like going toe-to-toe with a nation ranked 45 places ahead in the world rankings. And India was doing this with a starting XI made up of four central defenders and one recognised central midfielder.
Centre-backs, Lachungnunga and Narender Gahlot were converted into fullbacks, while Abdul Rabeeh, who is a winger by trade and had played at right back in the last three matches, partnered Amarjit Kiyam in midfield.
Rabeeh often dawdled on the ball, looking to turn away from his marker but was repeatedly targeted by the Saudi press, which led to dangerous turnovers in midfield. India’s attempts to play out from the back failed and they soon had to switch to playing long down the channels.
However, Saudi’s ball possession did not translate into clear openings as they fired from distance. Musab Al Juwayr thumped India’s crossbar before the rebound flashed narrowly wide of the far post in the 22nd minute. Jhingan stepped up with timely interventions in the first half, including a block to deny Zakaria Hawsawi on his left foot from close range as the teams went into the break goalless.
Any small hopes of India clinging on with its backs-to-the-wall defending were dashed by Saudi within six minutes of the restart. They asserted their control right from the whistle and moved the ball faster to get it down the channels. Mohammed Al Alshamat swung in a cross above Jhingan in the six-yard area, where Mohammed Marran rose above him to head it into the corner of the net. His Al Nassr club teammate Cristiano Ronaldo would have loved that.
Marran then doubled the lead six minutes later. Saudi split the line in the Indian midfield to find Saad Al Nasser, who slipped the ball into the path of the striker, who side-stepped Dheeraj Singh’s lunge before rolling the ball into the back of the net.
And like Chhetri, Stimac summed up the evening perfectly. “We left everything on the pitch, but that was the best we could do.”
The team’s uninspiring end to the Asian Games campaign encapsulated Indian football’s sad state of affairs. The players and coaches gave their best, but the stakeholders of the game had set them up for failure after they failed to pick the best possible squad.
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