Abu Dhabi: Indian fans at the Al Nahyan Stadium held a huge banner that read: ‘No more a sleeping giant’. The giants had indeed woken up from their slumber, if their 4-1 win against Thailand in the Group A fixture of the AFC Asian Cup was anything to go by on Sunday.
This was India’s first win in the Asian Cup since 1964 and there too, they had beaten Hong Kong by a similar margin.
India’s star man Sunil Chhetri scored a double in the morale-boosting victory and with that, overtaken Argentine genius Lionel Messi in the active international goalscorers’ list.
The Bengaluru FC forward now has 67 goals against his name, two more than Messi and only behind Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo who has netted 85 times for his country. Anirudh Tapa and Jeje Lalpekhlua also got into the scoring act while for Thailand, the consolation goal came from their captain Teerasil Dangda. At half-time, both teams were tied 1-1.
With this win, India have also moved to the top of the table with three points ahead of hosts UAE and Bahrain, who had settled for a draw on Saturday. India play the UAE next on January 10.
The match between India and Thailand was touted as a contest between two equals and despite the goals, both teams dished a lacklustre performance in the first session. India just turned the tables completely after the change of ends.
In the first session, both the teams kept losing their plots repeatedly and then would suddenly come up with something constructive before again losing the purpose. But that was understandable given the limited exposure that these teams have had at the big stage.
The breakthrough came in the 27th minute. A quickly taken throw from Chhetri allowed Mohammad Ashique Kuruniyan to make a swift run and take a shot which was blocked by Thailand goalkeeper Chatchai Bootprom. The rebound struck the hand of the backing defender Theerathon Bunmathan and referee pointed it to the spot. Chhetri calmly slotted it home with a clinical effort.
Five minutes later, Bunmathan compensated for what he did with a pinpointed free-kick that allowed Thailand to draw level. Then skipper Dangda, rose above the Indian defence-line to nod the ball over an onrushing Indian goalkeeper Gurpreet.
The Indian team came all cylinders blazing after the change of ends and were rewarded almost instantaneously. Chhetri triggered the move with a lob for Udanta Singh, who ran from the left before sending in the cross and the former sprinted down the middle to blast the goal with a full blooded effort.
Then in the 53rd minute, Chhetri was again at it and this time he made enough space to nod a release from Thapa’s corner but the ball had too much elevation for sail over the cross bar.
In the 63rd minute, Thailand was again in a spot of bother with Chhetri probing with a deft deflection from Udanta cross but goalkeeper Bootprom made a timely block.
Four minutes later following a fast break, Chhetri found Udanta lurking inside box and the latter set it for Thapa who shot home from close range to make it 3-1.
Then in the 80th minute, Lalpekhlua got into scoring act as soon as he came in place of Ashique Kuruniyan after being set by Halicharan Narzary inside the box.