Abu Dhabi: Hosts UAE, riding on a goal in each half from Khalfan Mubarak and Ali Mabkhout, registered a hard fought 2-0 win against a resilient India, who muffed atleast four clear cut chances, in a Group A AFC Asian Cup fixture at the Zayed Sports City Stadium on Thursday.
With this win, UAE have moved to the top of the group with four points with a match in hand against Thailand.
The Blue Tigers, who have three points from a win in their first match against Thailand, need at least a draw against Bahrain to have a chance of making it to the round of 16.
The Zayed Sports City Stadium, which perhaps for the first time in many years looked packed with an attendance of 43,206, was a cauldron of excitement as Indian fans responded to the call of their team and turned out in large numbers from all parts of the UAE, beating drums, egging on their players and even waving a tricolour carrying a slogan ‘This is India’. Emirati fans also proved equal to the task in the cheering contest.
It was an action-packed affair from the start with Indian captain Sunil Chhetri stealing the ball in the midfield in the 11th minute and sending a measured through for Muhammed Ashique Kuruniyan, who had a clear view of the goal, but couldn’t beat the outstretched hands of UAE goalkeeper Khalid Eisa.
In the 23rd minute, Udanta Singh Kumam showed tremendous ball skills on the left-flank to find Anirudh Thapa with a back pass. Thapa sent in a pinpoint cross and Chhetri came up with a power-packed header at the far post, but it was Eisa to the rescue again.
UAE forward Mabkhout and winger Ismail Al Hammadi were tightly marked and failed to get things rolling for the hosts in the first quarter. However, it didn’t take long for the much-fancied hosts to get the measure of the Indians. They kept pressing and found the breakthrough in the first concrete move in the 41st minute.
Mabkhout controlled a long ball from the deep and set it up for an overlapping Khaflan Mubarak, who chipped it over a rooted Indian goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh for the UAE’s first goal.
Immediately after, Chhetri had an opportunity to draw level when he made a defence-splitting run and beat the UAE goalkeeper Eisa with a crisp drive, only to see the ball roll agonisingly past the far post.
UAE were in a spot of bother when their ace defender Ismail Ahmed was stretchered off with a bleeding forehead following a collision with Indian defender Sandesh Jhingan.
He, however, returned to the field after the break with a bandaged forehead. Goal scorer Mubarak was also assisted for nose bleeds after he was inadvertently struck by an elbow.
Trailing by a goal, India brought in Jeje Lalpekhlua — who scored against Thailand — in place of Halicharan Narzary. It didn’t take long for the striker to take a shy at goal off a free-kick, but the ball went just wide off the top corner.
In the 55th minute, Udanta Singh’s effort was denied by the horizontal, but that was enough for the Indian fans to get behind the team. The noise in the stadium reached deafening levels and the Blue Tigers responded by making forays into the UAE half. This, however, allowed UAE opportunities on the counter, and had it not been for the vertical, Al Hammadi would have definitely widened the lead in the 74th minute.
Veteran striker Ismail Matar also got a run in the dying minutes and UAE made it 2-0 with Mabkhout getting into the scoring act with a fine finish from inside the box.
With Jhingan’s header in the last minute of extra time finding the framework, it was clear that lady luck was just not on India’s side this night.