FULL-TIME: Curaçao 3-1 India
Curaçao: Bonevacia (15′), Hooi (18′), Bacuna (34′).
India: Sunil Chhetri (32′ penalty).
A physically and technically superior Curaçao team defeated India comfortably, but not before a clutch of Indian debutantes demonstrated that there is much promise and a way forward.
At the very outset, this was always going to be an uphill challenge for the Indian NT. They haven’t played a match since the 14th January loss to Bahrain in the AFC Asian Cup 2019. The new manager Igor Štimac only took over the reigns three weeks ago and a short preparatory camp was never going to be able to simulate match conditions or establish a new style of play. The National Team also arrived at Buriram two days before today’s fixture and did not have enough time to acclimatise to the conditions.
To compound the lack of match practice, Curaçao weren’t going to be pushovers either. Ranked 82nd in the world FIFA rankings, most of Curaçao’s squad play their club football in Europe – from the English Championship to the Eredivisie.
The game started in sweltering conditions with the Indian team starting Rahul Bheke alongside Sandesh Jhingan in defence. Pritam Kotal and Subhasish Bose were in the fullback positions and the midfield three comprised of Pronay Halder, Brandon Fernandes and Sahal Abdul Samad. The attack was led by the captain Sunil Chhetri with Udanta Singh on the right flank and Chhangte bringing up the left.
In the early minutes, Sahal looked the brightest among the Indian players – a typical ball over the top from Brandon Fernandes saw Sahal at the end of it, but the 22-year-old could not apply the finish.
Around the 12th minute, Roly Bonevacia’s rasping shot from outside the box just went past the keeper. It was a sign of things to come. The Indian midfield looked imbalanced with Pronay Halder failing to take control of midfield and Brandon Fernandes not able to influence build up play.
The easy passage to the Curaçao team through midfield became an imminent problem with the central defence partnership of Jhingan and Bheke positionally unaware of themselves or their surroundings. The fullback Pritam Kotal was guilty of going AWOL a few times as well.
The opening goal for Curaçao came in the 15th minute after Pronay Halder surrendered possession with a weak tackle just outside the box. Jafar Arias nudged the ball towards the right side of the box and the square ball back in to the box by the overlapping Gevaro was swiftly converted by the former Ajax youth academy product Roly Bonevacia.
Curaçao doubled their lead minutes later. With the Indian defence playing a high line to get back in the game, a ball from midfield set Elson Hooi free towards goal. The winger outwitted Gurpreet Singh who had come out of his area and scored with Jhingan’s last stand at the near post proving to be in vain.
The first half continued to be hectic with Sunil Chhetri pulling a goal back in the 32nd minute. Sahal Abdul Samad was deemed to be fouled inside the box and the Indian captain stepped up to convert from the spot. Today’s appearance marks the 108th cap for Chhetri and he is now India’s most capped player after going past the iconic Bhaichung Bhutia.
For the briefest time, it looked like India found a way back in the game, but they would concede again a couple of minutes later to restore the two-goal deficit. Rahul Bheke committed to a tackle deep in midfield and did not end up winning the ball. The Cardiff City midfielder Leandro Bacuna found himself in a huge amount of space in the Indian defensive third and smashed the ball past the keeper.
Late in the first half, India had a chance to pull a goal back, but Udanta’s shot on goal after being setup by Sahal in the box was straight at the keeper.
Going into the second half, India made a raft of changes. Chhangte and Pronay Halder were hauled off and Mumbai City FC’s Raynier Fernandes and the 18-year-old Indian Arrows captain Amarjit Singh Kiyam made their debuts at half-time.
While Raynier and Amarjit shored up the midfield, Brandon switched to the left flank and Sahal played in the hole as the Indian team started to look potent after the substitutions. Sahal who had looked good on the ball, but lacked support in the first half, was given the freedom to express and was a threat every time he got on the ball.
But no goals would be scored in the second half. Micheal Soosairaj came on late in the half and he was the sixth Indian player to make his debut today. Curaçao had a couple of sighters on goal, but nothing came off it.
India had a few great chances of their own in the second half with Sunil Chhetri and Sandesh Jhingan coming close, but the Curaçao custodian was in no mood to concede as the match came to a close.
The Indian team will now play against hosts Thailand in a third place play-off match on the 8th of June at 2PM IST.