Football is a game, where good won't do it for you, you have to be great in every aspect of the game to come out on top. And, when it comes to the ongoing AFC Asian Cup, the margin for error, needless to say, is pretty thin.
Following their first ever win in the Asian Cup history that came on the back of an emphatic 4-1 triumph over Thailand, the Indian football team found their next big challenge against hosts United Arab Emirates (UAE) – a side that is currently ranked 18 places higher than the 'Blue Tigers' in the FIFA charts.
Raising the expectations of the fans back home, the upbeat Sunil Chhetri brigade was once again expected to put a strong performance if they intended to edge past the more proven and experienced UAE side in their own backyard. But, sadly for the Indian fans, Stephen Constantine's men succumbed to a 0-2 defeat in their second group game, but not without a fight.
The first chance of the match arrived early in the 13th minute where Ashique Kuruniyan found himself in a one-on-one position with the opposition goalkeeper, only to be denied by him in the end. Chhetri almost got a breakthrough with a crucial header, but, once again, the UAE shot-stopper stood tall to deny the 'Blue Tigers'.
In the first half, UAE, despite having the majority of the possession, couldn't dictate play because of India's strong midfield performance. Thus, there was no surprise to see India boasting more shots on target (3) against their opponents who could only manage one. But, the fact that the hosts converted their lone shot on target into a goal saw them taking the lead in the first half.
The opening goal came in the 41st minute by Khaflan Mubarak, where UAE took advantage of India's fragile defence. Pouncing on a long pass, Mubarak left the Indian defenders in disarray before unveiling a powerful shot that went straight into the top-right corner.
UAE's joy would have been short-lived had Chhetri not missed a golden chance by inches in the 43rd minute. Despite getting splitting UAE's backline, Chhetri just couldn't get the direction he would have ideally wanted to put it past the goalkeeper – one of the rare chances that India would come to rue later.
Despite trailing 0-1 in the first half, India's strong performance had their fans believe that was still a chance for their side to make a comeback in the second half. And their intent was further personified by Constantine's second-half change Jeje Lalpekhlua who immediately made India's intentions clear by coming really close to scoring an equaliser in the 53rd minute.
The likes of Udanta Singh and Sandesh Jhingan, too, came close to level the proceedings for India. But, rather than finding the back of the net, the duo, following in the footsteps of their teammates earlier, could only manage to improve India's shots tally. And, in the end, it was Ali Makhout's cool finish in the 88th minute that sealed the game and crucial three points for 'The Abyads'.
Reflecting on the pulsating clash, the Indian captain said: “It was a tight game. UAE are a good side, and they converted their chances. When you get your chances, you got to convert them. If we could have taken ours, it could have been different. We are still in the running. As a team, we are united and we are ready to fight. And that's what we are going to do against Bahrain.
While India would surely rue the missed opportunities in the match, their performance was still worthy of praise and adulation. For the better part of the match, they had the hosts by the scruff of their neck but just couldn't improve the 2-0 scoreline for their showing.
Following their triumph over India, the UAE team currently leads Group A with four points to their name. On the other hand, India find themselves in the second spot with just a point separating them from the group leaders.
With one game left in the group stage, while UAE, seeking only a draw to progress ahead, will be seen locking horns with Thailand on 14th January, Chhetri-led India, on the same day, will face Bahrain in a bid to secure all three points to stay in contention of making the cut for the knockout stage.