Asian Games football: China thrashes under-prepared and jaded India 5-1 in Group A match

Hours after arriving in Hangzhou, Stimac's boys show early resilience before fizzling out in second half.
Sunil Chhetri, Rahul Kannoly  Praveen & Abdul Rabeeh celebrate the equaliser against China in the Asian Games football contest in Hangzhou. (Photo | Team India Twitter)
Sunil Chhetri, Rahul Kannoly Praveen & Abdul Rabeeh celebrate the equaliser against China in the Asian Games football contest in Hangzhou. (Photo | Team India Twitter)

BENGALURU:  The scoreline, in the end, was on expected lines. India lost 1-5 to China in their opening match of the Asian Games at the Huanglong Sports Centre Stadium in Hangzhou on Tuesday.
The match, though, was more of an indictment of the preparations that this team had for the Games, than of the performance of the players or of coach Igor Stimac’s tactics. Indeed, there was a spell in the game that left fans wondering what could have been had Stimac been allowed to take the team he wanted and given the time to prepare his team.

After arriving in Hangzhou with just hours left for the match, India took to the field without even having a single training session together. Under those circumstances, it is indeed remarkable that these players — picked at the last possible minute from different clubs and more or less unfamiliar with each other — displayed any sort of synergy. China, predictably, dominated the first quarter of the game with the Indian players still figuring out how each other played. The hosts scored the opening goal of the game through Gao Tianyi in the 17th minute.

Things looked to be going from bad to worse for the Indians as goalkeeper Gurmeet Singh conceded a penalty and earned a yellow card for his efforts. However, Gurmeet instantly redeemed himself by saving that penalty. That incident, in the 24th minute, sparked life into the Indians and the consequent spell saw them go toe-to-toe with China. It ended with an equaliser that came in first-half injury time. Rahul KP beat his man down the right before finding the net with a brilliant finish from a narrow angle.

This was an Indian team that fans must have grown accustomed to over the last few months. They did not give up when things were not going in their favour, dug their heels in and got the equaliser. However, there is only so much Stimac can do in the face of the unprofessionalism that is often a byword for Indian football. By the time China restored their lead in the 51st minute, it was clear that the Indian players were spent. They were going down like flies with cramps and dead legs, Sumit Rathee, Abdul Rabeeh, Amarjit  Singh and Bryce Miranda all requiring medical attention in the second half. They still held fort till the 72nd minute when Tao Qianglong opened the floodgates with a goal.

Three more goals came in the next 20 minutes as the Indians struggled to get the ball out of their half. In another match Mayanmar beat Bangladesh 4-2. India play Bangladesh on September 21 and need to win the next two games to qualify for the knockout round. Every Indian fan, switching off their televisions after the game, would have been faced with a bunch of what-if questions. What if India’s performance in those 20-odd minutes in the first half had lasted for the full ninety?

What if instead of the players on the pitch, Stimac had been allowed to take the team that had originally been announced? What if instead of finalising a squad with three days left for the match, the All India Football Federation had actually planned this out months in advance? What if India had a week or so to acclimatise to the conditions and a healthy number of training sessions?

As is the case with most things in Indian football, we will never know the answer.

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The New Indian Express