Much wasn’t expected of India against Australia in their Asian Cup opener on Saturday. The gulf in class between the two sides apparent – India ranked a lowly 102nd to Australia’s 25th – but that did not deter the Indian fans, mostly made up of expatriates in Qatar, flooding into the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium.
And the Men in Blue put in a brave-hearted performance in the first half before a couple of sloppy moments allowed Australia to a 2-0 win in the Group B clash.
But there is no doubt India, which has been forever labelled as the ‘sleeping giant in football’, has miles to go before they can challenge the top teams of Asia, let alone of the world’s best.
The last time India had faced Australia was in the 2011 Asian Cup and the Socceroos had won 4-0. Saturday’s scoreline, though respectable, does not reveal the complete story of where Indian football stands.
The 35,253 spectators’ eyes were firmly perched on one side of the pitch as Australia parked themselves on the Indian half. Igor Stimac’s ploy was for his men to attack on the counter but barring one attempt from captain Sunil Chhetri – who failed to make the best use of a cross from Nikhil Poojary in the 16th minute – India hardly troubled Australia’s goalkeeper Mat Ryan.
The Aussies themselves were far from their best and were frustrated by the stoic defence from Sandesh Jhingan, Nikhil Poojary, and Deepak Tangri. For all their dominance and possession, Australia lacked the cutting edge in the first half.
India, though, were clearly overcooked as the half time was blown by Japan’s Yoshimi Yamashita, who became the first woman to officiate at an Asian Cup. Even as a couple of India’s players fell to the ground in exhaustion at half time, it was always going to be difficult for them to keep their focus and discipline in the second half.
But Australia were given an opening from an unlikely source as goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu – usually the safest pair of hands – flapped at a cross from the right by Martin Boyle. His light touch fell perfectly to Jackson Irvine, who calmly chested the ball down and tapped home in the 50th minute.
With relief on his face, Australia’s coach Graham Arnold opted to go for a more attacking approach and his two substitutes combined to increase the lead.
Jordan Bos put 2015 champions firmly in control as the 21-year-old, who had only been on the pitch a matter of seconds, knocked home from the back post to finish off a slick low cross from fellow substitute Riley McGree.
Despite Australia’s dominance in the match where they had 28 shots taken and 71% possession, coach Graham Arnold said his side – considered among the favourites for the tournament – had room for improvement.
“I can honestly say that we have got to improve a lot more than that,” said Arnold, who took Australia to the knockout phase of the World Cup in Qatar, where they lost 2-1 to eventual champions Argentina. “One disappointment was set’s something we need to improve on, and we will.”
Stimac on the other hand was pleased with his team’s performance and blamed the defeat on sloppy errors.
“We expected a very difficult match for us, with the physicality of Australia and all these corners which were coming, especially from the right side. But I am not so happy with the result at the end because both goals came out of our sloppy reactions,” Stimac said.
“These goals didn’t come out of Australia’s brilliant display but because of our irresponsibility at a certain point in time,” the Croatian added.
Australia will play Syria next on Thursday while India will have to rebound against Uzbekistan.
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