Sunil Chhetri starred with a brace as India got their 2019 AFC Asian Cup campaign off to a flyer, beating Thailand 4-1 in their tournament opener at the Al Nahyan Stadium on Sunday evening.
The Men in Blue were brilliant in every sense of the term and thoroughly deserved to clinch their first victory in the AFC Asian Cup since 1964. The magnificent Indian skipper, Sunil Chhetri, put India ahead thorough an expertly-executed penalty kick in the 27th-minute, sending the supporters into a frenzy. Thailand, however, took only six minutes to respond and restored parity through Teerasil Dangda’s well-taken free-kick. India came out all guns blazing in the second half and recorded an emphatic scoreline through one goal each from Chhetri, Anirudh Thapa, and Jeje Lalpekhlua.
On paper, Thailand seemed like the better team by a distance. Thanks to the South East Asians’ knack for breaking away at pace, India were tipped for a difficult night. The initial omens fell in line with the predictions, as it was the War Elephants who created the first real chance of the night. India were relieved to see Thitipan Puangchan’s effort miss the target, but Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was tested soon after from a well-worked set-piece routine.
Thailand, as expected, had a stronger foothold in the game, enjoying just over 70% possession in the first half. However, after a spell of Thai dominance, it was India’s turn to hit back. Ashique Kuruniyan’s ambitious effort hit Theerathon’s arm, and the match official, who was in a great position at the time, didn’t hesitate to penalize the War Elephants. India’s ever-reliable skipper, Sunil Chhetri, stepped up and dispatched a convincing spot kick to put his side ahead. Thailand reacted in the best possible way and restored parity through Teerasil’s thumping header just six minutes after. The two teams went into the tunnel with nothing between them.
The second half saw India play their best half in the history of the tournament. They looked flamboyant, decisive, and weren’t afraid to take on their lofty rivals. Just a minute into the second half, Chhetri’s pass found Udanta Singh, who went on an inspiring run before teeing up his skipper for India’s second goal of the night.
The Blue Tigers had smelt blood by then and were hunting for the all-important third goal. After 20 minutes of relentless pressing and unmatched doggedness, India hit their third through an efficient counter-attack. Chhetri’s inch-perfect through ball set Udanta up for a comfortable finish, and while the youngster missed his mark, Anirudh Thapa didn’t let the opportunity go to waste.
Finally, to top the historic night off, Jeje Lalpekhlua came off the bench to score India’s fourth in the 80th minute, ending his 10-month goal drought.
Standout Performer – Sunil Chhetri
The 34-year-old Indian maverick once again proved why he is hailed as one of the finest Indian players in the history of the sport. With his brace (66th and 67th goal), Chhetri went past Argentina’s Lionel Messi (65 goals) in the list of international goals scored by an active footballer, with only Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who has 85 from 154 matches, remaining to beat. His goals were only the icing on the cake, as his commitment, doggedness, and determination were equally influential.
Participating in their fourth Asian Cup, the 4-1 win over Thailand, last night, was only India’s third triumph in 11 fixtures. The encouraging result should give the Men in Blue, who now sit at the top of their group, plenty of confidence to hope for the unexpected and go deep into the tournament. Hosts UAE are the strongest team in their group and would be a tough nut to crack. Bahrain, on the other hand, seem a like a more favorable opponent, and should not pose much of a threat to an in-form India.
India’s next fixture pits them against UAE – who were held to a draw by Bahrain in their tournament opener – on Thursday night.