By Samindra Kunti
India 4 Thailand 1
January 6 – India steamrollered Thailand 4-1 in their opening game on Sunday to take a huge step towards reaching the knockout phase of the Asian Cup for the first time. Talisman Sunil Chhetri scored twice as Anirudh Thapa and substitute Jeje Lalpekhlua also got on the score sheet.
India coach Stephen Constantine threw two curveballs before kick-off: he promoted his number one Gurpreet Singh to the captaincy instead of longstanding striker veteran striker Chhetri and he benched striker Lalpekhlua for Muhammed Kuruniyan, nominally a midfielder.
Kuruniyan, however, played as a support striker for Chhetri as India switched between a 4-4-2 in possession and a 4-2-3-1 out of possession. The Indians pressed and covered well in the opening 20 minutes of the game and up front Kuruniyan contributed with his hold-up play.
Thailand came close after ten minutes with a drive from outside the box from Thitiphan Puangjan towards the top left corner, but it was India who took the lead from the penalty spot in the 27th minute with Chhetri smashing it home. From a throw-in Chhetri had cleverly played in Kuruniyan, who ran into the box, tested Thai goalkeeper Chatchai Budprom and on the rebound Theerathon Bunmatan handled the ball.
But India’s happiness was short-lived as Bunmatan made up for his mistake five minutes later by whipping in a set piece from the right where Thai captain Teerasil Dangda equalised with a glancing header beyond a helpless Singh. Dangda had been left totally unmarked in the Indian box and his goal reinvigorated Thailand who began picking holes in the Indian midfield. They established a measure of composure that had been missing in a nervy start. The Indians abandoned their high-pressing game, but Thailand failed to create clear-cut chances.
India finished the first half on the back foot, but that didn’t faze Constantine’s team at all. They got off to a dream start after the break when Udanta Singh zipped forward down the right in the 47th minute and Chhetri connected first time on the run to give India a 2-1 lead. The Bengaluru FC duo had carved open the Thai defence with ease to craft a fine goal.
Milovan Rajevac’s team were visibly rattled as India tried to press their advantage. Constantine’s team maintained a healthy tempo to which Thailand had little response. They couldn’t live with India’s intensity as Kuruniyan’s tenacity and Udanta’s pace kept on troubling Thailand. Rajevac responded with a substitution just before the hour mark, replacing Sanrawat Dechmitr with Korrakot Wiriya-Udomsiri.
That was to little avail. In the 68th minute Udanta teed up midfielder Anirudh Thapa to chip in India’s third. Thailand were not simply rattled, but stunned. The War Elephants barely strung a pass together as their Asian Cup campaign got off to a nightmare start. Chanatip Songkrasin, who had been the game’s outstanding player in the first half, faded and was taken off for Siroch Chatthong.
In the 80th minute Jeje Lalpekhlua compounded Thailand’s misery, scoring India’s fourth goal with a toe poke from the edge of the box. By now, the Blue Tigers played with total control and even a measure of flair to consolidate a result that sets them on the path towards the last 16.
India had last won an Asian Cup match in 1964, 3-1 against Hong Kong. This time they went one better, and in some style.
Contact the writer of this story, Samindra Kunit, at moc.l1634711865labto1634711865ofdlt1634711865rowed1634711865isni@1634711865ofni1634711865