Sunil Chhetri rues missed chances in game of 'small margins' vs UAE
There were many things that happened during the India-UAE match at the Asian Cup in Abu Dhabi on January 10 that locals don't remember having happened before.
India outshot their opponents in the first half, the UAE players went up to coach Alberto Zaccheroni at half time and confessed they had not expected India to be so sharp. A capacity crowd of 43,208 turned up at the Zayed Sports City Stadium for the first time, a ground that has hosted multiple World Club Cup finals, with Cristiano Ronaldo featuring in them. They cheered raucously for the UAE team, which ran out 2-0 winners, but they were just as appreciative of a brave performance from India, who Zaccheroni would later mark out as the team to watch out for in future in Asian football.
Emirati journalists, huddled at the mixed zone ahead of the teams walking out from the game, were congratulating their Indian counterparts, saying they had never seen their home team play a more tense win. One reckoned even a "10 percent" luck with the Indians would have seen them emerge victorious from the game.
The only thing missing from the Indian performance, full of verve and tactical intelligence, was goals.
Playing principally on the counter, India were flying in the early stages, with strikers Sunil Chhetri and Ashique Kuruniyan coming close to scoring three times between themselves inside the first 22 minutes.
"Even if one of them had gone in, 1-0, and they would have been desperate, and things would have been so different. Then we would have had them exactly where we wanted," Chhetri said after the match, where UAE actually had only the two shots on target, goals for Khalfan Mubarak and Ali Ahmed Mabkhout. "We come back in the second half, Udanta [Singh] blasts the ball, hits the first bar, the second bar. That goes in, 1-1, things are different again.
"These big games, the margins are small and us missing chances like that [cost us]. Before the game, we wouldn't have thought we'd have five chances, we'd have hit the post twice. If somebody had told me, I'd have taken it and I'd have backed myself to convert those chances. It's just one of those days," said Chhetri.
UAE's first goal underlined those 'small margins'. Anas Edathodika's split-second of indecision in dealing with a long ball would allow Mabkhout to swoop in, and set up Mubarak for a run into the box, culminating in a finish just off the Indian defender's foot. It came in the 41st minute, and helped UAE take a little momentum into half time.
Or later in the half, when Anirudh Thapa played in a perfectly weighted ball for Chhetri, who headed it straight to goalkeeper Khalid Eisa Bilal. Small margins.
Sandesh Jhingan was a solid presence in defence, and also a nuisance when India moved forward. Sporting a sizeable bump on his forehead, following a clash of heads that left UAE defender Ismail Ahmed Mohamed with a bleeding forehead, Jhingan chose to look at the positives from the game. "In football, if you don't take your chances, you end up on the losing side. Still lots of positives, coming here in the home of UAE and the way we played, the passion we showed was second to none," he said. "We have our fate in our own hands. If we show the same desire, we get three points and we qualify."
Try telling that to Chhetri though. "I think those two chances are still killing us. Ashique will not sleep, and I will not sleep for a long time."