Asian Games: Tired legs catch up with Stimac’s boys as India thrashed 5-1 by China in football opener

A tired Indian team, which had only landed in Hangzhou the previous night, put up a brave first-half performance only to hit a wall in the second against a razor-sharp Chinese team who ran out 5-1 victors at the Huanglong Sports Center Stadium on Tuesday. India’s opening defeat was along expected lines, but the negative goal difference of four is now a worry for head coach Igor Stimac and his wards’ hopes of reaching the pre-quarters.

The Chinese U23 team, playing at home at these Asian Games, began strong. Stimac’s team has come into this tournament with the worst possible build-up. With no training sessions and a long layover in Singapore, the Indians just didn’t possess the sharpness required at top-level football.

China had two shots on target in the first 10 minutes – both from their No.10 Tan Long – who found himself between both Indian central defenders on both occasions. His first header was wide of goalkeeper Gurmeet Singh’s right post and his second was aimed straight at the Indian custodian.

But India’s relief lasted just six minutes till they conceded their first goal of the night. A corner – one that should have ideally been cleared by Sandesh Jhingan – fell weakly in the box where captain Gao Tianyi calmly slotted a left-footed half-volley into the Indian net.

The Indians just didn’t have the time to play their way into some form of sharpness. Ayush Chhetri, one of the only two central midfielders in the team, found himself with the ball outside the Indian box, and made a weak back pass which didn’t reach Gurmeet, who had to make a foul in the box to avert a goal. But he was there to stop that resultant penalty in the 22nd minute to keep the scoreline 1-0 in favour of China.

It took 25 minutes but India finally found their feet. They adjusted to being a smaller team with little space in midfield and tried to pass their way out rather than give the ball away cheaply. That control remained for the rest of the half and led to the team’s best moment on the pitch.

Coming into this tournament, bringing results with an imbalanced team was the challenge. One of the ways around that would be to use the impressive wingers in the squad. Enter Rahul KP.

India vs China Football Match Live: Indian football team takes part in Asian Games 2023 It was a ninth win for China in their 16 games against India. (Hangzhou 2023/Twitter)

Part of the Kerala Blasters set-up and an Indian Arrows alumnus, Rahul found himself on the right flank with acres of space after right-back Abdul Rabeeh put him through with a straight pass down the wing. He turned on the afterburners, beat his marker in a one-on-one race and slammed the ball between the Chinese ‘keeper and his near post. It was a goal borne out of no options or cut-backs available to him. There was the one thing to do and Rahul was rewarded for being powerful and precise in that moment with India’s first Asian Games goal in 13 years.

An incredible 45 minutes which saw India go toe to toe against a team that had prepared much better for this tournament and gone through multiple competitive games and camps, came to an end on an equal footing.

Half from hell

The second half, though, was what many believed this game would be headed for. In the 50th minute, with acres of space ahead of him, Dai Weijun unleashed a weak shot from outside the box. It was a strike that took two low bounces before limping into the Indian net and should have ideally been saved by Gurmeet. India’s troubles had only begun.

Unable to bring any substitutes of note onto the pitch, Stimac had to watch his players go down one by one to cramps. Suddenly Amarjit Singh Kiyan – tireless in his running and assured in passing – was going through the motions. Left-back Bryce Miranda, having spent the first half sprinting down the left flank, would clutch his legs as cramps would hit him as well midway through the second half.

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All the poor planning coming into this game finally caught up with India. China scored their third and fourth goals in the 71st and 74th minutes. The third was a Wang Haijian shot that was saved by Gurmeet but slotted in on the rebound by Tao Qianglong. The latter scored again three minutes later after Jhingan gave the ball away due to some intense pressing outside the Indian box by China’s forward line – most of whom had been substituted in and were far fresher than the Indian legs on the pitch.

The fifth blow came in the 91st minute when Fang Hao found himself in the Indian box with just Gurmeet to beat and unleashed a right-footed shot to the bottom of the far post.

A four-goal negative difference means that India will now have to beat Bangladesh and Myanmar in their next two games if they are to make it to the pre-quarters on their own. A third-place finish would mean goal difference would come into the picture, a prospect that India wouldn’t want to rely on after Tuesday’s match.

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