India crashed out of the AFC Asian Cup with a heartbreaking 0-1 defeat at the hands of Bahrain, who scored in the injury time, in their final Group A match on Monday, 14 January.
India were on the verge of booking their maiden knock-out round berth in the continent’s biggest stage as the scoreline remained 0-0 till the 90th minute when captain Pranoy Halder brought down a Bahrain attacker for the referee to point to the dreaded spot.
Jamal Rashed stepped up and cooly sent the ball past goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu into the net to the dismay of the Indians who had surprised everyone with their impressive performance in the tournament.
A draw would have been enough for India to go through to the Round of 16 at second place in Group A while Bahrain would have been knocked out of the tournament. But it was not to be as India succumbed to incessant pressure in the last few minutes after waves of attack from their opponents.
India ended at the bottom of four-team Group A on three points from three matches. Hosts UAE, which played out a 1-1 draw against Thailand in the other match played simultaneously in Al Ain, topped the group on five points.
Thailand, whom India had beaten 4-1 in their opening match, and Bahrain got four points each but the South East Asian country ended at second spot as they had beaten the West Asian side in their previous match.
A knock-out round qualification in the Asian Cup would have been ranked as the biggest achievement in Indian football after the Golden Years (1951 to 64).
In 1984 and 2011 also, India had crashed out of the tournament in the group stage. They lost three and drew one in 1984 while losing all their three group matches in 2011.
India had finished runners-up in the 1964 edition in Israel but that tournament was played in a round-robin format comprising four countries with the winners being decided on the basis of points collected in the league. There was not a single knock-out match in that edition.
The first half was more or less an even contest without any clear chance from both the sides though Bahrain had slight better ball possession of 60 per cent as against 40 for India.
Bahrain came out all guns blazing for goals in the second half and had waves of attacks on the Indian citadel and they ultimately succeeded in the injury added time by earning a penalty.
Stephen Constantine made one change in the playing eleven that started in the earlier two matches with Rowlin Borges coming in for attacking midfielder Anirudh Thapa, clearly indicating the need to strengthen the defence.
India suffered a jolt just after the start of the match as central defender Anas Edathodika suffered an injury and Salam Ranjan Singh came in his place for his first match of the tournament.
Despite the change at the heart of the Indian defence, the back four played beautifully not giving the opposition any clear chance in the first half.
India had a nervy start as Bahrain, for whom it was a do-or-die match, pressed from the very first minute, but they weathered the initial pressure and held their own and even had some fine moves later on.
Both sides did not have a clear chance in the first 45 minutes though Bahrain had better possession. Unlike the match against the UAE, it was not the overwhelming possession by the opponents as India also strung some nice passes and link-ups.
Central defender Sandesh Jhingan, and the most senior of them, was brilliant yet again, as he made some crucial interceptions inside the box to deny the Bahrain attackers to connect the crosses from the flanks.
Defensive midfielder Pranoy Halder, who led the side, also thwarted a header from Mohamed Al Romaihi directed towards the Indian goal towards the close of the first half.
In the second session, Constantine brought in Jeje Lalpekhlua in place of Ashique Kuruniyan but that did not give India any advantage as it was Bahrain who completely dominated the final 45 minutes.
The woodwork saved India in the 71st minute as Marhoon’s header off a corner hit the upright.
Goalkeeper Gurpreet, who had to make a series of saves in the second half, was called to action in the 84th minute when he made a last minute deflection off a header by Abdulla Yusuf Helal.