India slump to a loss against Tajikistan despite Chhetri brilliance

It was a tale of two halves at the EKA Arena in Ahmedabad on Sunday, as India slumped to a 2-4 loss against Tajikistan in the opening match of the Hero Intercontinental Cup 2019. India took a two-goal lead in the first-half, courtesy a Sunil Chhetri brace but the visitors responded four times in the second-half to subject the Blue Tigers to a disappointing loss.

  • Sunil Chhetri converted from the penalty spot on the 4th minute to hand India the lead.
  • Chhetri doubled the advantage on the 41st minute with his second of the night.
  • Komron Tursunov and Sheriddin Boboev scored two quick goals on the 56th and 58th minute respectively to bring Tajikistan back in the match.
  • Muhammadjon Rahimov gave the visitors the lead on the 71st minute before Shahrom Samiev made it 2-4 in their favour on the 75th minute.

Unperturbed by the occasion at hand, India head coach Igor Stimac picked a very new-look starting XI with two debutants - 18-year-old defender Narender Gahlot and Mandar Rao Dessai- in the fray. Sandesh Jhingan, surprisingly, started from the bench, leaving Adil Khan to partner young Narender at centre back. Rahul Bheke and Mandar were deployed as the right and left backs respectively. Amarjit Singh Kiyam, Sahal Abdul Samad and Anirudh Thapa constituted a very exciting and young midfield three. Sunil Chhetri, along with Udanta Singh and Lallianzuala Chhangte were chosen to shoulder the primary attacking duties. Fitness issues meant Anas Edathodika lost out from a spot in the matchday squad.

The Blue Tigers roared off the block with Sahal showing some quick feet in midfield. The youngster released a timely ball for Mandar, who in turn sent in a through pass down the right for Chhangte to chase. The 22-year-old engaged Tajikistan defender Siyovush Asrorov to a foot race and drew in a foul inside the box to win India a penalty. Sunil Chhetri calmly stepped up and executed a cheeky Panenka to beat Tajik custodian Rustam Yatimov and handed India an early lead.

The hosts could have very easily doubled their lead shortly after, as a quick counter-attack set Udanta with space to run into. The Bengaluru FC winger should have played the ball in for Chhetri making a run through the middle but delayed his pass too long, allowing Tajikistan to clear the danger.

The Persian Lions could have clawed their way back into the match around the 20th-minute mark as a misjudged clearance by Narender freed up Ilhomjon Barotov. With only Gurpreet Singh Sindhu to beat, the midfielder dragged his effort wide, letting India off the hook.

In patches, the India team showcased some fine football, playing swift triangles of passes to unlock the Tajikistan defence. The visitors' ploy, on the other hand, involved making use of their physical superiority to power through or to create heading opportunities with crosses from out wide.

Post the half-hour stage, Tajikistan started to exert their authority on the match, but some gutsy defending, particularly by birthday boy Adil Khan, helped keep the lions at bay.

The Blue Tigers saw off the pressure and capitalized on the 41st minute. Udanta took on his man and whipped in a cross from the left, which eventually found its way to Mandar on the left. The debutant found captain Chhetri inside the box, who controlled the ball with a sweet touch. With no room to tee himself up for a shot, Chhetri's only option was a stab from a standing position, which he executed brilliantly and placed the ball past Yatimov for the second time on the night. The first half ended with the hosts 2-0 up.

Stimac brought on Vinit Rai in place of Amarjit for the second half. Chhetri and Co. started the second period on the front foot but conceded a goal against the flow of the game on the 56th minute. Komron Tursunov’s first crack at goal was blocked by Gurpreet, but the 23-year-old made sure he tucked in the rebound.

India almost restored their two-goal cushion seconds later when Udanta found Chhetri inside the box with a pin-point low cross. With his hat-trick on the line, the 34-year-old uncharacteristically skied his effort. The miss proved costly as Tajikistan found the equaliser on the 58th minute with a tap in by Sheriddin Boboev.

Things only got worse for the hosts thirteen minutes later as Muhammadjon Rahimov ran onto a through ball from the deep and finished past Gurpreet calmly to give the Persian Lions the lead for the first time in the match. Four minutes on, substitute Shahrom Samiev made it 2-4 after latching onto a clever lobbed pass from Panshanbe Ehsoni.

The Blue Tigers tried hard to close the gap and Stimac even threw in striker Jobby Justin in the mix for his senior debut, but the scoreline remained unaltered till the final whistle.

What’s Next?

The Blue Tigers will look to bounce back when they take on DPR Korea in their second match of the competition on July 13.

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