Nov 07: India 0-2 Kuwait
Nov 09: India 1-2 Qatar
Nov 11: India 4-1 Singapore
It was a do or die battle for India against Singapore in the third and last group league match. India needed to win, and win big, to have a chance of qualifying into the round-of-sixteen stage. The Men in Blue responded in style, and thrashed Singapore by 4-1 margin to ensure a berth in the knock out stage as one of the four best 3rd-placed teams.
In their first match against Kuwait, Indian coach Sukhbinder Singh’s defensive strategy received brickbats from fans back home. The Indian players were happy to sit back and defend, even after Kuwait took an early lead. The strategy backfired, as a defensive lapse allowed Kuwait to double their lead around the hour mark to take the game away from India. While a faulty clearence from defender Robert Lalthalma gifted Kuwait the first goal, Indian goalkeeper Laxmikanth Kattimani was at fault for the second goal, as Kuwait striker Khalid Ajab exploited his poor positioning to slot the ball at the near post. The ultra defensive Indian outfit did not create anything notable in the match, other than a Joaquim Abrahanches scorcher which rebounded off the cross bar.
In the second match against a strong Qatar side, Sukhi changed the tactics and India displayed excellent passing football. While against Kuwait, they relied on sending long balls to find one of the two strikers in the opposition box, in this match the young Indians looked assured with possessional football against their illustrious Asian counterparts. The attacking football ultimately paid for India when Dharmaraj Ravanan’s header from a Joaquim Abrahanches corner gave India a surprise lead in the 18th minute.
The Men in Blue continued to press hard and created couple of more opportunities in the first half, but did not succeed in increasing the lead. Qatar, in search of the equalizer, started the second half in attacking fashion. Here, Indian coach Sukhi made a tactical blunder and went into a defensive mould to preserve the solitary goal lead. India defended resolutely but could not prevent the equalizer in the 82nd minute. Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who substituted an injured Laxmikanth Kattimani, could have done better to keep out Ali Jaralla’s looping header. The Indian coach responded by introducing striker Jagtar Singh in place of an off-colored Balwant Singh. India could have scored in the 85th minute, but the Qatar goalkeeper produced an outstanding save to deny Manish Mathani. Under continuous pressure from the Qatar attacking force, India conceded another goal a couple of minutes before the final whistle to eventually lose the match by 1-2 margin.
India needed a big win against Singapore in the last group match to qualify for the knock out stage as one of the 3rd best teams in the group. India started the must win match on a attacking note, and midfielder Sheikh Jewel Raja gave them an early lead when his swinging free-kick beat the Singapore keeper and found the back of the net in the 13th minute. Jewel could have scored his second from another free-kick in the first half, but this time the goal post came to Singapore’s rescue.
India doubled their lead around the hour mark when Balwant Singh’s powerful strike from 18 yards out found the top right corner. Within five minutes, India added the 3rd goal – which is, arguably, the best goal of the tournament so far. Jeje Lalpekhlua and Jibon Singh played a nice sequence of passes between them, and Jeje’s clever backheal found Jibon unmarked inside the six yards box. Jibon coolly slotted the ball in an empty net after rounding off the Singapore goalkeeper.
In the 75th minute, Jeje’s powerful shot from 25 yards out ricocheted off the goalbar and fell for Manish Mathani, who made no mistake in pushing the ball over the goal-line. Singapore scored their consolation goal in the 83rd minute.
India qualified for the round of sixteen as one of the best 3rd-placed teams, ahead of Uzbekistan, Vietnam and China. This will be India’s first knock-out appearance in 28 years, after the 1982 Delhi Games. Here’s the table for best 3rd placed teams from the group stages so far.
India is the only 3rd-placed team to qualify for the knock-out stage so far. Depending upon various permutation and combinations, the other three teams to qualify for the round-of-sixteen will be decided after the matches scheduled to be played on November 13th.
The fixture for the round-of-sixteen matches are yet to be finalized.