India is on their way! The Blue Tigers attested the fact they are the defending championsby clinching all three points against a tricky Syrian side at the Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium, New Delhi. For Indians, the captain Sunil Chettri and old warhorse Anthony Pereira got on the score sheet, and Alaa Alshbbli pulled one back for the visiting Syrians just before the full time.
India starting line-up: Subrata Pal; Nirmal Chhetri, Raju Gaikwad, Gourmangi Singh, Rahim Nabi; Sanju Pradhan, Mehtab Hossain, Lenny Rodrigues, Clifford Miranda; Francis Fernandez; Sunil Chhetri (C).
There were a few eyebrows raised when the starting eleven list was announced for the hosts, especially the absence of Alwyn George or Anthony Pereira. Koevermans deployed an astute 4-4-1-1 formation with Francis Fernandes playing just behind Sunil Chettri. Churchill prodigy Lenny Rodrigues and East Bengal captain Sanju Pradhan were handed their first cap for the national team. Clifford tread the left flank whereas Mehtab was given the job of supporting the defenders. India had their usual suspects at the back with Gourmangi and Raju taking care of the center, Nirmal and Nabi on the right and the left back positions respectively.
Both sides started on a nervy note. Indian midfielders, especially Sanju Pradhan and Clifford Miranda were looking to find Sunil with their diagonal passes, unlike huge lobs in front of the goal, which the fans were used to see in the Houghton era. Both sides were trying to build up from the midfield, but were misplacing their passes in the final third. Rain halted the proceedings in the first half for quarter of an hour with still eleven minutes left for the lemon break. After the break India came out with more purpose. Mardik Mardikian muffed a glorious opportunity to put his side ahead, when he was set through on goal by a wonderful through ball. It soon became clear than it would be difficult for both the sides to pass and judge the ball. India broke the deadlock just a minute before the halftime as Clifford floated in a sumptuous cross, only to find captain Sunil unmarked who headed the ball inside an empty net. India went into the tunnel with their tails up.
Syria substituted Mohemmad Rifal with Zakaria Al Omari at the start of the second half, with a clear intent of adding teeth to the attack. Syria was looking sharp in early minutes after the break as Indian defenders had to withstand considerable pressure. The water logging was obviously irritating the Syrian players as they are not used to play in these conditions. India’s number one custodian came up with a wonderful save to deny the visitors a chance to restore parity. The new Prayag United goalie made a quick move towards the striker to palm away the goal bound shot.
Anthony Pereira was bought in for Sanju Pradhan, and that move paid dividends eight minutes from the time as Anthony raced past the left back, then cut inside and curled the ball from his left foot past a diving Syrian goalkeeper. The crowd went into a delirium as his strike doubled the lead for the hosts and it helped bring down the anxiety levels in the stands. Syria did pull one back, as the Alshbbli headed home a free kick two minutes before the full time whistle. A moment of miscommunication at the back denied the hosts to eke out a clean sheet in the opening match.
Man Of The Match
Local boy Sunil Chettri was adjudged man of the match for his exemplary performance upfront. He kept Syrian defenders on their heels throughout the match, trapped the long balls directed towards him by the midfielders and gave very little away. His positioning and finishing for the first goal was inch perfect. Although Sunil and Anthony got India home through their respective moment of brilliance, a special mention should go out towards Francis and Sanju who made their debut matches look easy and gave in a more than decent performance.
India Next Match: India V Maldives – Saturday, 25th August