India lose to Curacao but promising debutants offer hope

Newly-appointed head coach Igor Stimac’s first match in charge of the Indian national team ended in a disappointing 3-1 defeat against Curacao in the opening match of the 47th King’s Cup at the Chang Arena in Buriram, Thailand, on Wednesday. Despite the loss, the match had a lot of positives on offer for the Blue Tigers, with six players making their debuts for the senior team. Sahal Abdul Samad, in particular, impressed on his maiden outing. Brandon Fernandes, Amarjit Singh and Rayner Fernandes, too, gave a good account of themselves in their opening act in the India shirt.

  • India made a bright start but two-quick goals by Rolieny Bonevacia and Elson Hooi on the 16th and 18th minute respectively drove the Blue Tigers on the back-foot.
  • Sunil Chhetri scored from the penalty spot for India on the 31st minute, but Leandro Bacuna scored Curacao’s third soon after.
  • Chhetri hit the crossbar around the 80-minute mark.

Igor Stimac's first-ever starting XI had some surprises in store with the Croat opting to hand three players - Sahal Abdul Samad, Rahul Bheke and Brandon Fernandes - their national team debuts. Lallianzuala Chhangte, too, started an international match for the first time since the SAFF Cup 2018. Sunil Chhetri, making his record 108th appearance, which took him past Baichung Bhutia to become India's most-capped player, led the team onto the field.

Curacao head coach Remko Bicentini, meanwhile, fielded a strong team with former Everton right-back, Cuco Martina, donning the captain's armband and Cardiff City FC midfielder Leandro Bacuna operating as the chief orchestrator at the middle of the park.

The Blue Tigers made a measured start to the match and denied their much-fancied opponents too much space to work with, crowding them out as soon as they crossed the half-way line. Brandon and Sahal looked lively in the opening minutes and combined well to worry the Curacao defence on the 8th minute. Sahal’s well-timed run was picked up brilliantly by Brandon with a lobbed through. The Kerala Blasters FC man did well to hold off his man and tried to square the ball for an onrushing Chhangte. The final pass, however, turned out to be a tad too strong.

Curacao soon responded with a chance of their own as Rolieny Bonevacia tried his luck from distance. The midfielder’s shot had Gurpreet Singh Sandhu worried for a bit but eventually missed the target. Minutes later though, Bonevacia popped up inside the India box to guide Gevaro Nepomuceno’s low cross past a helpless Gurpreet to draw first blood.

Two minutes on, the 2017 Caribbean Cup champions doubled their lead. Indian defenders were slow to react to a quick counter-attack, giving the dangerous Elson Quincy Hooi a free run at goal. The ADO Den Haag man used his pace to round up Gurpreet and finished from a tight angle.

The second goal prompted the Blue Tigers to try and push the game further up the field, thereby setting up a very open game of football. Both teams kept trading half-chances and India’s perseverance finally paid off on the half hour mark. A scuffed headed clearance by Curacao defender Jurich Carolina fell kindly for Sahal just inside the opposition box. With the youngster trying to shape himself for a shot, Carolina rushed in to make amends albeit with a high foot. The dangerous play prompted the referee to point to the spot for a penalty. Chhetri stepped up and beat Eloy Room to make it 2-1.

The joy didn’t last long as Curacao restored their two-goal cushion with a goal from Bacuna. The midfielder found himself with space to shoot just from outside the 16-yard box and buried his low drive into the bottom corner.

The Blue Tigers came close to reducing the deficit once more on the 43rd minute. A brilliant passing move involving Brandon, Chhetri and Sahal eventually freed up Udanta Singh for a crack at goal. The winger kept his effort on target but was denied by a diving save by Room and a bit of mop up by Carolina. The first half ended with Curacao 3-1 up.

Stimac made two changes at half time, bringing on 18-year-old Amarjit Singh and midfielder Raynier Fernandes – both making their national team debuts – in place of Chhangte and Pronay Halder. The change of personnel also forced a switch in the organization, with Brandon shifting to the left wing and Amarjit taking up his place centrally. Raynier was a like-for-like replacement for Pronay, slotting in as the defensive midfielder to screen the back four. The changes seemed to have a positive effect on the team immediately, as the Blue Tigers looked much more lively going forward.

Curacao, on the other hand, tried to keep possession of the ball and carved out a few dangerous chances of their own. On the 66th minute, Stimac replaced Brandon with Michael Soosairaj to add the day’s sixth debutant into the mix.

Like in the first half, Samad was at the centre of everything positive for India and struck up a good partnership with fellow-debutant Amarjit at the middle of the park. The two combined really well and almost unlocked the otherwise-solid Curacao defence on the 78th minute. Sahal’s cheeky pass from the edge of the box picked out Amarjit’s late run into the box, only for the 18-year-old’s shot to be blocked in the last second.

India would come close to scoring yet again seconds later. This time, Pritam Kotal found Chhetri with a cross from the right and the Indian skipper was unlucky to hit the woodwork. The match eventually ended 3-1 in Curacao’s favour, but Indian fans can take heart, particularly with the performances of the debutants and the fearless quick-passing game displayed by Stimac’s men, especially in the second half.

What’s Next?

India will face the losing side from the Thailand vs Vietnam tie in the third-place playoff match on June 8.

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