SILIGURI: He started off with a bang and he went out with, what was at best, a rather loud whimper. Wim Koevermans ended his reign as the national football coach at the Kanchenjunga Stadium here on Monday, looking on as his team fell to a 2-3 defeat to Palestine, despite putting up a brave fight.
It was a script identical to the one played out between the two sides in Kochi 20 months ago. Palestine took an early lead through Ashraf Nu’man, only for India to capitalise on two errors by keeper and captain Ramzi Saleh to go in front. Palestine, however, outmuscled the Indians in the second half and scored twice, the winner a fortuitous deflection that found its way past India keeper Subrata Paul.
Koevermans sent out the same team that had played Bangladesh in March, with one exception – Raju Gaikwad replacing Narayan Das in defence. The Palestine squad contained a lot of players who had appeared in their previous victory over India, and it was that day’s tormenter in chief – Nu’man, who had hit a hat-trick in Kochi –who proved the Blue Tigers’ undoing early on.
With nine minutes gone, Ahmed Wridat’s cross from the left wing, was collected by Husam Abusaleh on the right. His low pass found Nu’man, who despite a rather clumsy first touch, slotted past a diving Subrata Paul. Palestine had completely dominated the opening exchanges and would continue to do so, until the unlikeliest of breaks for India changed the complexion of the match.
With just over an hour gone, a back pass found its way to keeper Saleh. His clearance however struck the onrushing Sunil Chhetri on the back and trickled into the net. The goal was completely against the run of play, but the Indians knew they had a way back into the game.
Five minutes later, Saleh was in the doghouse again. Some patient build-up play by India saw Lenny Rodrigues take a shot from just outside the box, after receiving the ball from Robin Singh. Saleh failed to collect it cleanly and palmed the ball straight into the path of the onrushing Francis Fernandes. The Goan midfielder coolly slotted in before running all the way to the dug-out and embracing Koevermans in an emotional celebration. It was his parting gift to the outgoing Dutchman, who seemed only too happy to receive it.
The hosts went into halftime 2-1 up, but saw familiar mistakes come back to haunt them after the referee restarted proceedings. Only six minutes went by before Palestine restored parity. Nu’man turned provider this time, setting up Ahmed Maher, whose shot settled in the bottom left corner of the net. After the Palestinian equalizer, only one team looked like finding a third goal, and find it, they did. Khader Yousuf let loose a long ranger that, on any other day, would have posed no problems for Subrata. But instead, it took a wicked deflection off defender Arnab Mondal and rolled in past the Indian custodian.
It was heartbreak for Koevermans, who was looking to end his tenure on a high.
For his opposite number Saeb Jundiya, however, it was the first of many steps his team must take, before they are primed to take on the big guns at the Asian Cup in January.