Two quick second-half strikes by Marram Mohammed broke Indian hearts as the Blue Tigers went down 0-2 to Saudi Arabia at the Hanglong Sports Centre Stadium in their Round of 16 encounter at the 19th Asian Games.
India’s plan, right from the get-go was to turn the game into a physical, gritty, scrappy battle. Igor Stimac had stressed on the importance of fighting it out on the pitch and it was no surprise to see the Blue Tigers put bodies behind the ball and rely on the counter to surprise their opponents.
Saudi Arabia, the current U23 AFC Asian Cup holders, had come out of a group which had IR Iran and Vietnam. Despite holding possession for large periods of the first half, they didn’t really have too many clear-cut chances to go ahead, and for the first quarter, were reduced to taking potshots at goal from distance, Chinglensana Singh and Sandesh Jhingan marshalling the defence beautifully to keep them at bay.
India had their first chance of the game in the 14th minute, Sunil Chhetri the architect and the artist, cutting past three Saudi players, before a lucky bounce presented him with a chance to shoot at goal from outside the box. Shoot he did, albeit straight into the arms of Ahmed Fahad.
From thereon, Saudi Arabia recognised India’s threat on the counter and pressed higher and harder to negate it. Every clearance or loose ball was immediately snatched upon, and the Indian team were forced back into their own half for most of the half. In the 22nd, Saudi Arabia came close to opening the scoring, Haitham Asiri curling a shot from just outside the box onto the crossbar. From an ensuing melee, the ball dropped to Awad Al Nashri, whose shot from a narrow angle, drifted wide. Deep into the half, Dheeraj Singh made a smart save dropping low to his right to save from an Asiri freekick, and Jhingan blocked from Zakaria Al Hawsawi in injury time, to ensure India went into the break level.
Saudi Arabia came quickly out of the blocks in the second half, and six minutes in, Marran Mohammed headed in a cross by Abu Al Shamta to give them the lead. Marran got a second in the 57th minute, calmly collecting Saad Al Nasser’s through ball, cutting past Dheeraj and slotting it into the net. From there it was all about game management, for both sides. Saudi Arabia were keen to not let their levels drop, and for the Blue Tigers, it was crucial to not open up at the back in the search for a goal and concede more.
Dheeraj made some brilliant saves — the standout being one where he went diving backwards to save a header from Rayan Hamed — to ensure the deficit wouldn’t increase. In the end, the Blue Tigers’ first appearance in the knockouts in over a decade ended valiantly, though without any dividends.
India XI: Dheeraj Singh; Lalchungnunga, Narender Gahlot, Sandesh Jhingan, Chinglensana Singh (Azfar Noorani 63’); Amarjit Singh, Rahul KP, Abdul Rabeeh (Ayush Dev Chhetri 63’); Rahim Ali (Bryce Miranda 63’), Gurkirat Singh (Samuel James 45’), Sunil Chhetri (Rohit Danu 78’).