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Late Sunil Chhetri penalty gives India win over Bangladesh, keeps football hopes alive

India kept their hopes alive in Asian Games men’s football after a late Sunil Chhetri penalty gave them all three points against Bangladesh at the Xiaoshan Sports Center Stadium on Thursday. The win came less than 48 hours after a 5-1 defeat to China in which the Indian players, who had landed in Hangzhou the night before, gave up four goals in the second half. Thursday’s win ensured that India have their fate in their own hands – a positive result against Myanmar will ensure a spot in the pre-quarters of the continental event.

The build-up to these Asian Games for the Indian football team has been dominated by a lack of preparation and inability to secure the players that coach Igor Stimac asked for. The Bangladesh team, with its considerably fewer resources, had a training camp for their team while India was left to the mercy of Indian Super League clubs and their schedules.

It was no surprise to see Bangladesh come out more organised and sharper in the initial stages of the match. But while India didn’t match the energy they showed in the first half against China, pragmatism was the need of the hour, and Stimac’s selections stuck to the instructions given to them.

In the opening minutes, Bangladesh were able to press higher up the field but India looked more likely to score. Stimac also chose to play with three centre-backs, allowing left-back Bryce Miranda to play further up the field. It allowed the team an outlet to carry the ball further up the pitch. But as a steady downpour enveloped the stadium, only half-chances were created – until the first half was about to end.

Bangladesh goalkeeper Mitul Marma had been called into action a couple of times in the half, but rarely threatened. But a loose ball in the box saw Chhetri rifle an attempt from close range – one which Marma got a hand to. The rebound fell to Rahul KP, who unleashed another attempt – which was again denied by Marma. The Bangladesh custodian then stopped another effort, this time a header, to deny India their first goal of the game as the first half came to a close.

Constant pressure

India began the second half the way they ended the first. It would be yet another close chance on goal, the opportunity arriving from a perfectly- placed Miranda cross that found Rahul nestled between the two Bangladesh centre-backs. But the whip of the ball was moving away from the Kerala Blasters forward and India’s lone goalscorer against China couldn’t convert the chance.

Freedom Sale

India continued to push for a goal, but when they thwarted Bangladesh’s pressure, they were unable to stitch together enough passes in the final third. Eventually as the game seemed to be heading for a draw, it was Miranda who pumped life back into Indian hearts.

Having received a pass on the edge of the box, he was trying to bring the ball down but got accosted by Bangladesh captain Md Rahmat, who landed a high-footed tackle. Up stepped Chhetri, and just as calmly as he does for the senior national team, took a couple of steps and slammed the ball past Marma. The heroics of the Bangladesh ‘keeper came to nought as India took the lead in the 83rd minute.

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Bangladesh tried to get back into the mix thereafter but barring a few half- chances and one really good one-on-one situation against Indian goalkeeper Dheeraj Moirangthem, looked better in moments but never really looked likely to score.

“It was frustrating. A lot of things we could have done well like passing in the final third. At the end of the day, getting three points was essential. Playing three games in five days is not easy. A lot of ice baths are coming up,” said 39-year-old Chhetri after the win. “Boys are here, boys are not here. Prep, no prep. 19 or 20 players. All of that doesn’t matter now. Chuck it.”

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India next face Myanmar on Sunday. Myanmar lost their game 4-0 to China so both teams are in the same boat. While the Chinese have topped the group, whoever wins the match between India and Myanmar will take the second automatic qualification spot in the group. If India finish third, they will have to be one of the best four out of the six third-placed teams.

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