It was new coach Igor Štimac’s first match since his appointment. It was the day where he handed international debuts to six players, including an 18-year old Amarjit Singh, India’s U-17 World Cup Captain. It was also the day when Sunil Chhetri played his 108th international match, thus becoming India’s highest capped International player, breaking Bhaichung Bhutia’s record. Not surprisingly, he even scored, converting from the spot, his 68th international goal.
In what was a game of two halves, the Blue Tigers learnt from the mistakes of the first half, and despite being the better side in the 2nd half ended losing 1-3 to a strong Curaçao in their opening match of the King’s Cup at the Chang Arena in Buriram, Thailand.
Courtesy the victory, Curaçao advanced to the final of the tournament, while India will play either Thailand, or Vietnam in the third place play-off on June 8 (Saturday).
Štimac started with a new-look Indian side, as three players – Rahul Bheke, Brandon Fernandes, and Abdul Sahal — made their international debut in starting XI. Raynier Fernandes, and Amarjit came in as substitutes from the start of the second-half, while Michael Soosairaj came in midway in the second.
The positive intent of the young squad was on display. Trailing 1-3 at the interval, Raynier and Amarjit’s inclusion added to the quick passing and effective blocking in the midfield. The Indians weren’t willing to go into a defensive shell. Rather, they looked the more purposeful side in the 2nd half, and had their chances.
The Blue Tigers in fact, had also begun with much purpose. In the 7th minute, Lallianzuala Chhangte mistimed a sublime cross from debutant Abdul Sahal.
The Curaçao midfield, then tried to gain control slowing it down at times, stretching to the flanks, and playing quick one-twos. In the process, Bonavacia and Hooi scored within two minutes to make it 2-0 by the 18th minute.
But India hit back. Sahal, who impressed with his turns, touches, and never say die attitude earned a penalty for the Blue Tigers in the 31st minute. – Chhetri gleefully converting from the spot.
But hardly had the celebrations died down, Bacuna made full use of the gap between Subhasish and Gurpreet to score the third goal for the CONCACAF side.
But the Indians kept pressing. Two minutes to the end of the first half, Sahal collected it from the heart of the midfield, and passed it onto an onrushing Udanta. But the latter miscued it as both teams headed to the interval with Curaçao leading 3-1.
Changing over, Stimac made two crucial changes – bringing in Raynier and Amarjit in place of Pronay Halder, and Changte. The introduction of the youngsters in the middle of the park helped. India looked composed, showing more urgency in the opponent half in the second half.
Raynier and Sahal combined brilliantly in the 71st minute but the Curaçao defender saw off the danger till the end.
Indians earned back-to-back corners in the 73rd minute but Bheke miscued Udanta’s corner, and then Sunil headed over Pritam’s inch-perfect cross.
The talismanic striker came close to scoring another in the 86th minute but his effort bounced off the post.
In the second minute of added time, Chhetri put in a curling corner kick which could have found the back of the net off the head of a Curaçao defender, but the ball rolled wide of the goal.