As a disappointed Sunil Chhetri made his frustrations clear in the mixed zone after India's 0-2 loss to UAE, an arm came across his shoulder. It was a member of the UAE staff who wanted the Indian captain to know that his side played a really "good game". One-by-one every UAE player that passed behind Chhetri in the mixed zone made sure they appreciated India's performance in the game. India had won the respect and hearts, but lost the points. The players would bite your hand off if you offered them a trade-off.
The disappointment among Indian players was the biggest sign of their progress as a team. "I'm glad to have 23 disappointed players. They are bitterly disappointed. That shows that we believed we could win the game and came very close to do so. Earlier we would have been happy about this 2-0 loss with such a performance," Indian coach Stephen Constantine told the media after the game.
India made another bright start and terrorised UAE with their intense pressing. The hosts were pushed back and couldn't pass their way into the Indian half.
After 20 minutes, if we compare the average position of the players of the two sides, UAE only had two players in the Indian half compared to India's seven in the other half.
Sandesh Jhingan had the first big chance of the game as he escaped his marker during a corner, but failed to keep his header down. Few minutes later, Chhetri, who received the ball after a break of play from India, fed Ashique Kuruniyan through on goal. The young striker's strike was brilliantly tipped over by the UAE goalkeeper. Later, Jhingan had another chance from a header which he fired wide before Chhetri sent a header from a precise Anirudh Thapa cross straight to the goalkeeper.
UAE had their hands full in dealing with India's growing offensive presence and could barely conjure attacks of their own.
However, in the 41st minute, Khalfan Mubarak profited from an indecision by Indian defenders Anas Edathodika and Subhashish Bose who let Mubarak steal the ball from their grasps, make a darting run into the box and finish superbly from a really tight angle.
At the interval, for all of India's good work, they found themselves behind to a UAE side who had scored from the only shot on target they had in the entire first half. However, India began from where they had left and pinned UAE on the back foot in the second.
Luck deserted the away side as Udanta Singh's drive rebounded off the crossbar only to bounce out and fall harmlessly to an UAE defender before Jeje Lalpekhlua's volley flew inches away from the angle of the goal.
As the half wore on, India lost their intensity and belief. UAE capitalised on another defensive lapse as Ali Mabkhout doubled their advantage with a fine finish.
India again hit the woodwork in stoppage time, this time through Sandesh Jhingan as their chance of leaving a mark on the game they bossed for large periods had passed.
"We hit the post twice, some of our shots missed by few inches and they go at the other end and score from a tight angle. He took his goal well but in these big games the margins are fine. They finished better than us and that made the difference. This game was a lesson for us," Chhetri said after the game.
The defeat was a hard one to take for the Indian players, but on the big stage, football can be ruthless at times. It's now up to the players to regroup and keep delivering such performances on a consistent basis.
"We have to pick ourselves up from this because no one else is voting to come and do that for us. This is how football is sometimes and we must react in the next game and try and get a result to see us through," Chhetri added.
India will take heart from the performance though. Few teams were able to cause UAE problems in their own backyard and India forced the hosts to alter their game. Keeping the result aside, the performance is a feather in the players' caps.
"These Indian players are very good. They caused us lot of problems with their speed and we had to make changes to our game to be able to get closer to our goal. I sense this Indian team will be a force in the future tournaments," UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni told the media after the game.
A point against Bahrain in the last game would still be enough for India to qualify, with a win assuring India a top two spot in the group. With a cold, harsh lesson learnt in the game against UAE, the young Indian side should be more prepared to face another tough test in their final group game.
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Updated Date: Jan 11, 2019 16:30:31 IST