Blue Tigers dominate Thailand to make a roaring start to the AFC Asian Cup

Picture Courtesy: AFC Media

The Blue Tigers began their AFC Asian Cup 2019 campaign with a brilliant 4-1 win over Thailand at Abu Dhabi on Sunday. Sunil Chhetri was the star of the show for India with a brace, while Anirudh Thapa and Jeje Lalpekhlua also got on the score sheet. The win also took India to the top of Group A.

  • Sunil Chhetri converted from the penalty spot to give India the lead on the 27th minute
  • Thailand captain Teerasil Dangda headed in to level things up on the 33rd minute, but Chhetri restored India’s lead seconds after the second-half began.
  • Anirudh Thapa scored India’s third on the 68th minute, before Jeje Lalpekhlua came off the bench to score the fourth.

India head coach Stephen Constantine's intent to go for a win was evident from the very attacking starting line-up, which included pacey attacking players like Ashique Kuruniyan, Udanta Singh and Halicharan Narzary. Sunil Chhetri was deployed as the sole striker up front, with Jeje Lalpekhlua starting from the bench. The Blue Tigers' game plan to stretch the Thailand defence was evident early on as the team looked to use Udanta and Ashique's speed down the channels to lay seize on the opposition's penalty box.

India made a bright start, with Ashique in particular, impressing with his direct running and hold up play down the left wing. However, the first big chance of the match fell Thailand's way just around the 20-minute mark. A dangerous free kick by Thailand had Gurpreet Singh Sandhu scrambling and needed a crucial intervention from Anas Edathodika to clear the danger.

Picture Courtesy: AFC Media

The War Elephants kicked on to enjoy a dangerous phase of possession, but it was the Blue Tigers who would go on to get the crucial opening goal. A quick throw-in by Chhetri sent Ashique through on goal and the youngster managed to get his shot off. The effort rebounded off Thai goalkeeper Chatchai Bootprom's body and the ricochet hit defender Theerathon Bunmathan's arm, prompting the referee to point to the spot. Sunil Chhetri dispatched the spot kick beyond Bootprom to give India the lead. It was Chhetri's 66th international goal, taking him past Lionel Messi. Only Cristiano Ronaldo has scored more among active players in the international stage.

The goal forced a strong response from the Thai team and it took just six minutes for them to find the equaliser. Bunmathan, who was guilty of giving away the penalty, made amends as he floated in a delightful free-kick from the right, which Thai captain Teerasil Dangda headed in past a helpless Gurpreet.

The equaliser sparked an entertaining phase of end-to-end football and Chhetri came close to restoring India's lead on the 37th minute. He did well to make room for a shot inside the Thailand box, but the final effort sailed high. The first-half ended with the score 1-1.

The Blue Tigers came out roaring in the second-half and reclaimed their lead in the first minute after the restart. Udanta bombed down the right wing before cutting the ball back for his Bengaluru FC teammate Sunil Chhetri on the edge of the box. The Indian talisman responded with an exquisite finish to score his second goal of the match.

India piled on the pressure on the shell-shocked Thai team and Anirudh Thapa tested Bootprom from distance soon after. Chhetri could have completed his hat-trick on the 54th minute, after Thapa found him unmarked inside the Thailand box from a corner kick. Chhetri’s glancing header, however, landed on the roof of the net.

The India no. 11 came close yet again just after the hour mark, after the Thailand custodian fumbled Udanta’s low cross. It took some vigilant defending by Tristan Do to deny Chhetri a shot at open goal.

The third goal eventually came for India on the 68th minute. Chhetri’s defence-splitting pass sent Udanta through on goal, but the youngster delayed his shot a bit. With his sight of goal blocked off, Udanta laid off the ball for an onrushing Thapa, who calmly chipped the ball into the goal. It was the 20-year-old’s maiden goal for India.

The Blue Tigers continued bossing the proceedings and kept turning the screws on Thailand. The War Elephants almost pulled a goal back against the run of play on the 75th minute, but Dangda’s weak effort was deflected out for a corner.

India went on to reinforce their dominance even further on the 80th minute. Jeje Lalpekhlua was brought in as a substitute on the 78th minute and found the net within two minutes of stepping onto the field. The Mizo Sniper pulled off a delightful finish after being set up by Halicharan.

India held on for the win to register their first victory in 55 years in the AFC Asian Cup.

What’s Next?

The Blue Tigers’ next outing in the AFC Asian Cup 2019 will be against hosts UAE on January 10th.

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