| Indian skipper Bhaichung Bhutia attempting a flick past Uzbekistan’s Ottabek Pirmatov at Ambedkar Stadium Wednesday. Picture by Rajesh Kumar
New Delhi: History has an uncanny way of repeating itself. Four years ago, on the eve of the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games, Uzbekistan toured India and were held goalless in the first match. However in the second encounter in Calcutta they trounced India 4-0. This time, Uzbekistan lost the first match 0-2. However, having recovered from the jet lag and having got acclimatised, Uzbekistan, with greater variety in attack, beat India 1-0. So honours remained even in the two match series.
Thus, Stephen Constantine’s last match on Indian soil before departing for the Asian Games ended on a sour note. The coach himself was bitterly disappointed and said, “Losing is always disappointing and I am unhappy at the display of the midfielders.”
Overall, it was India’s second defeat in eight matches under Constantine. With Bhaichung Bhutia being rested in the first half to give Alex Ambrose a chance to try out his injured knee, Debjit Ghosh became the national captain for the first time. Also, Jo Paul Ancheri did not play, again due to a groin injury.
Uzbekistan started in a 4-4-2 formation but switched to 4-3-3 in the second half.
Substitutes striker Alisheikh Khalilov and balding playmaker Ottabek Primatov, gave Uzbekistan the edge in the second half. India played in Constantine’s favoured 3-5-2 system. Even though the Indian coach made six changes in the second half, they had no impact.
The Indian attack in the first half lacked sting because of Bhaichung’s absence while the midfield got disjointed when S. Venkatesh was replaced by Bijen Singh in the 58th minute.
In the first half, despite midfield domination, India’s attacks fizzled out due to lack of ideas in the attacking third. Two Bharti long rangers and Venkatesh’s miscued volley off a Sameer Naik cross from the right were the only worthwhile Indian attacks in the first half. Early in the second, Baichung’s neat diagonal put Abhishek Yadav in the clear but the latter muffed shot wide from close.
Midway through the second half, Uzbekistan’s sustained pressure paid dividends. Ottabek and Alishiekh combined at the edge of the box and slipped the ball to right-sided midfielder Ruslan Vagapov who scored with a low left footer off the edge of the post. Mahesh Gawli delayed in closing down the scorer. Minutes later goalkeeper Rajat Ghosh Dastidar advanced to foil an onrushing Bakhtier Hamidullaev.
Incidentally, the Indian squad will remain in Delhi and practice till their departure on September 24. However, the four Bagan players — Bhaichung Bhutia, Rajat Ghosh Dastidar, Rennedy Singh and Satish Bharti — will be released to play the return leg of their Asian Champions league tie against Sri Lanka’s Saunders, in Calcutta on September 22.
Meanwhile, manager Santo Mitra and other officials are apprehensive about Thursday’s sports ministry meeting to decide on the clearance for the football team to Busan.
However, an optimistic All India Football Federation president Priya Ranjan Das Munshi said he had been assured by Indian Olympic Association president Suresh Kalmadi that the football team would be cleared by the government.
Das Munshi also stressed that the AIFF would send the team to Busan at its own cost if the clearance did not come through.