Chhetri penalty pens India’s comeback chronicle

NEW DELHI: Riding on a late Sunil Chhetri penalty, the Blue Tigers beat Bangladesh 1-0 in their Group A encounter at the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou on Thursday, September 21, 2023. With the win, India put their campaign and their fate for qualification firmly back into their own hands, with a final game against Myanmar to be played on September 24.

After the chastening loss to hosts China, Igor Stimac’s boys were back against their familiar South Asian foes, a team who have actually been a tough one to break down for the Blue Tigers. Over 6,000 kilometres away, the Blue Colts took barely a minute to break the deadlock against Bangladesh’s U19, but in Hangzhou, things were different. Right from the start, it was clear that grit, not guile, would help eke out a result.

After a brief settling-down period, India were the ones to create a first attempt at goal; in the ninth minute, Rohit Danu and Rahul KP combining to put the ball at the feet of Sunil Chhetri, inside the box. The skipper’s shot, though, was deflected wide. Chhetri had another chance a few minutes later, with Ayush Dev Chhetri’s cross falling to him inside the six-yard box. Chhetri played the ball across goal rather than towards it, and Bangladesh cleared with ease.

The game fell into a pattern soon after, more midfield tussle than end-to-end action. Bangladesh’s pacey wingers were the focal points of their attack, constantly probing and drifting crosses into the Indian box. Rabiul Hasan and Jayed Ahmed put through a flurry of crosses into the Indian box midway through the first half, each of which was cleared with ease by a stoic Indian defence. On the one occasion that Bangladesh did breach the defence, Foysal Ahmed Fahim, cutting in to shoot, Dheeraj Singh saved comfortably.

The Blue Tigers’ lynchpin for the first half was Bryce Miranda, the winger tirelessly running at defenders and constantly making the Bangladeshi players second-guess their options. In the 40th minute, his corner landed perfectly for Chinglensana Singh. The defender’s subsequent header towards goal was blocked. Despite having edged possession, India had not registered a single shot on target when injury time struck in the first half.

Just like in the last game though, it was in that period that suddenly the action picked up. Unsurprisingly, Miranda was at the centre of it, if only fleetingly. It was his low-centred ball that caused panic in the Bangladesh defence, a miscued clearance and a weak punch by Mitul Marma, falling straight to Chhetri 10 yards from goal. The skipper shot and shot hard, but Marma was up for the challenge, diving low to make the save. The rebound, after a melee, fell to Abdul Rabeeh, who shot at goal again.

Again, Marma saved. This time the rebound fell straight to Rabeeh, who had the presence of mind to lob the ball across the box to Rahul KP inside the six-yard box. Rahul rose high and headed towards goal, and again Marma was there, deflecting the ball onto the post. Bangladesh cleared frantically and the best chances of the first half were gone.

India picked up right where they left off at the end of the first half, with Miranda’s energy and enterprise in particular driving most of it. Three minutes into the second half, he curled a cross perfectly into the six-yard box, only for Rahul KP to miscue his header. From the rebound, Rabeeh shot high and wide.

India were in control of the tempo of the game, but Bangladesh were not to be written off. They capitalised on the smallest of errors and ensured Dheeraj remained on high alert. The youngster saved brilliantly after a defensive mix-up saw Fahim bear down on the Indian goal in the 50th minute.

In the 60th minute, India almost had the opener, in glorious style, no less. From a freekick wide on the left, 35 yards from goal Samuel James shot for goal, when a cross was perhaps more expected. It caught everyone by surprise, Marma included. To Bangladesh’s relief, though, it bounced off the post.

Bangladesh rode that luck to create a brilliant chance on a counter, Mojibor Rahman Jony, dancing his way into the box after a crossfield ball had found him in yards of space. He dribbled past Lalchungnunga, and broke to his left, but by the time he pulled the trigger, Dheeraj had smartly closed the angle and distance to make what was a superb save.  

Both goalkeepers had, at different stages, kept their team in the game, setting up a brilliant finale. As it was, it came down to the thinnest of margins. Miranda, a constant thorn for Bangladesh’s defence, was brought down illegally inside the box by Rahmat Mia. The referee pointed to the spot, despite their protestations. Chhetri took the ball and slotted it home, low and hard into the bottom left. From thereon, India did not lose their heads nor the lead. The three points put them back on track for qualification from the group.

India XI: Dheeraj Singh (GK), Lalchungnunga, Chinglensana Singh (75′ Narender Gahlot), Sandesh Jhingan, Ayush Dev Chhetri (75′ Vincy Barretto), Amarjit Singh (54′ Samuel James), Rahul KP, Sunil Chhetri (C), Bryce Miranda (86′ Rahim Ali), Abdul Rabeeh, Rohit Danu (54′ Gurkirat Singh).

Also Read: Jharkhand, Kerala, Meghalaya, Manipur, Haryana, Tripura, NCC, Assam, Arunachal, Bangladesh schools continue their winning run

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