| Al Kahtani Yasser, the hattrick man
Calcutta: Aggression was what India coach Bob Houghton promised. Aggression was what his boys delivered in the AFC Asian Cup group A qualifier against Saudi Arabia on Wednesday.
The scoreline, however, didn’t reflect that in any way. Saudi Arabia won 3-0 because they made good the chances that came their way while the Indians didn’t — especially in the second half — at the rain-soaked Salt Lake Stadium.
A hattrick by Al Kahtani Yasser settled the issue in a match played amidst a steady drizzle which turned heavy in the last 10 minutes. A crowd of five-six thousand braved the weather to cheer India a day after the country celebrated its 59th Independence Day.
Saudi Arabia and Japan — who beat Yemen 2-0 at home on Wednesday — both have six points from two games. India have lost all three, having been drubbed 0-6 in Japan and 0-3 by Yemen at home.
India conceded a goal in the very second minute, thanks to a defensive lapse by N. S. Manju. The defender, instead of clearing a routine cross, tried to dribble Yasser — one of the 10 World Cuppers in the starting line-up — and lost possession inside the penalty box. Yasser lost no time in capitalising.
The match was a tale of aggression, missed opportunities and an endeavour to overcome impediments like heavy ground conditions. The last 10-12 minutes were played in very poor light as the floodlights took time to come into full glow.
India captain Bhaichung Bhutia got a good opportunity in the seventh minute, but sent his shot way off target.
The presence of so many World Cuppers hardly dented Indian spirits. They seemed to be a transformed team, not the India that have often cowered in the face of tough opposition.
India gave the three-time AFC Asian Cup champions a lot of anxious moments and their ’keeper, Khojah Mohammed, had to be on full alert as Manjit Singh tested him time and again.
Though much was being said about Saudi Arabia’s disadvantage in slushy ground conditions, they didn’t seem too bothered. In fact, in the first half, they hardly exerted themselves. The second goal came in the 20th minute when Kahtani headed home a Mohammed Ameen cross from the left flank.
In between, S. Venkatesh missed a chance. Then, Manjit’s smart 25-yard left-footer sailed over the crosspiece, but not by much.
The third goal came in the 52nd minute, when Kahtani — who had moments earlier hit the post — capitalised on yet another lapse by Manju and slotted the ball into the net.
Saudi Arabia did well to target Manju, who was the weak link in Indian defence.
India picked up momentum in the second half, which witnessed a lot of dramatic action including two yellow cards. Yasser pushed Steven Dias in the 67th minute and got cautioned for an offence which deserved marching orders.
Shortly after, Yasser — who is considered to be one of the most promising strikers in Asian football — was replaced by Al Mahyani Eysa.
In the very next minute, India made their first substitution when the energetic Rennedy Singh was surprisingly taken off to be replaced by Samir Naik.
Saudi Arabia, stung by the raids of a team which doesn’t even feature in the top-100 of the Fifa rankings, got serious and launched a series of attacks. Still, India finished with the better figures in terms of attempts on goal (it was 11-8 in the hosts’ favour).
Manjit was outstanding, showing a lot of enterprise both in carrying the ball forward as well as moving into scoring positions. Three chances came his way, but he couldn’t deliver.
Bhutia completed the tale of missed chances when he failed to hit bull’s eye with custodian Khojah at his mercy. Houghton seems to have infused a lot of spirit into the Indian team. He will now have to discover the magic potion which will enable the team to find the net.
Saudi Arabia: Khojah Mohammed; Dokhi Ahmed, Tukar Redha, Al Qadi Naif, Khathran Abdulaziz, Al Dosari Saleh Bashar (Alaa Al Kwykbi 60); Sulimani Hussein; Kariri Saud (Abdullatif Al Ghannam, 63), Mohammed Ameen, Al Ghamdi Omar; Al Kahtani Yasser (Al Mahyani Eysa 76)
India: Sandip Nandy; N. S. Manju, Surkumar Singh, Deepak Mondal, N. P. Pradeep (Alvito D’Cunha 72); Mehrajuddin Wadao, Steven Dias, Rennedy Singh (Samir Naik, 68), S. Venkatesh (Anupam Sarkar, 86); Bhaichung Bhutia, Manjit Singh
Referee: Satop Tongkhan (Thailand).