It took a dramatic penalty shootout win as the Indian football team finished second in Group E of the AFC U23 Asian Cup Qualifiers. India, who were pitted alongside Oman, UAE and Kyrgyzstan in a tricky group, secured 4 points from three games.

Igor Stimac’s side began their campaign on a winning note against Oman before narrowly going down to hosts UAE. In their final match, they shared the spoils with Kyrgyzstan in a cagey encounter as both teams finished their campaign with 4 points. But in the end, it was India who took the second spot after winning the penalty shootout against their opponents thanks to goalkeeping exhibition from Dheeraj Singh and Rahim Ali's consistent run at the qualifiers.

Here’s how their journey went down that ended as their best finish in the tournament:

Opening triumph against Oman

India commenced their journey in the AFC U-23 Asian Cup qualifiers with a 2-1 win over Oman at the Fujairah Stadium in UAE. The win was set-up by Rahim Ali (6’), who converted an early penalty, followed by Vikram Partap Singh’s goal (37’) which came late in the first half.

Rahim found the back of the net despite Oman goalkeeper Ibrahim Yousuf’s accurate preemption. Rahim later turned provider for Vikram, who held his nerves in front of goal with a neat finish and nestled the ball into the net against the onrushing keeper.   

In the penultimate minute of the regulation time, Oman’s Waleed Salim found the net. But it came too late as India had done enough to secure the three points on offer.

Setback versus hosts UAE

India suffered a heartbreak against UAE as the hosts converted a penalty opportunity provided to them in the 82nd minute, courtesy a spot-kick by Abdulla Idrees. The visitors went down by 1-0 that further intensified the race within the group.

UAE took command of the possession, though India's 4-4-2 formation held the fort, denying UAE early inroads. However, the deadlock was broken by Idrees whose penalty took the hosts closer to the Qualifiers as Group winners.

Dheeraj Singh guards India to second spot

In their third and final match of the AFC U-23 Asian Cup qualifiers, India went up against Kyrgyzstan and the clash ended in stalemate with both sides unable to find the net.

Earlier, UAE had overcome Oman 2-0 to finish as the Group E toppers. The 0-0 tie between India and Kyrgyzstan meant both the teams had equal points, head-to-head and goal difference, with nothing to separate them from securing the second position in Group E.

However, since a second-placed team needed to be determined as part of the qualification process, a penalty shootout took place to determine the second and third positions. Dheeraj Singh started with a couple of brilliant saves while Rahul KP, Rohit Danu, Suresh Singh, and Rahim Ali scored from the spot, helping India grab the second place with a 4-2 win in a dramatic shootout. 

The top teams from each group will qualify directly along with the best four second-placed teams across all Groups. But as it stands, despite registering their best finish, India have been ruled out of the qualifiers. However, India under Stimac, displayed sensational ability to counter threats deployed by challenging opponents showcasing positive signs for the future.