The Indian senior men’s team were held goalless by Lebanon in the final group match of the Hero Intercontinental Cup on Thursday, June 15, 2023, at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar.
In an evenly-matched contest for most parts, both sides had opportunities to win the game, but neither could find the edge on another humid evening in the Odisha capital.
Lebanon were already confirmed to be India’s opponents in Sunday’s final before the game kicked off as Vanuatu beat Mongolia 1-0 earlier in the day.
Head coach Igor Stimac once again made a flurry of changes to the starting eleven from the previous game, most notably resting Sunil Chhetri, who netted the match-winner against Vanuatu, to give Ashique Kuruniyan his first appearance of the tournament. With the same back-line reinstated from the opening match against Mongolia, goalscorers Sahal Abdul Samad and Lallianzuala Chhangte also returned to the line-up.
Despite the goalless draw, Stimac said he was happy with the way things went. “Very happy with the boys’ performance. We knew we would be tested a couple of times, and that’s exactly what happened. When you play against better-quality opponents, that will happen. Another clean sheet, enough chances to win big, and in the end, I’m just sorry for the boys, it didn’t happen. Next time, we will surely win in three days’ time,” he said.
Similar to the Mongolia game, India intended to get off to a lightning start and went close to opening the scoring in only the third minute. After a quick throw-in at the right flank, Chhangte drilled a low ball into the penalty area to pick out Anirudh Thapa, who dragged his attempt wide of the far post.
The tempo of the game was largely controlled by the Blue Tigers, but Lebanon looked threatening on the counter. In the 10th minute, skipper Hassan Maatouk twisted and turned near the edge of the box before lashing a powerful strike over the bar.
On another such break forward, Karim Darwich had a clear sight of goal but Jhingan bravely put his body on the line just as he pulled the trigger. Jhingan was adjudged the Hero of the Match.
“As a centre-back, a clean sheet means a lot to you. As a team, if you can keep a clean sheet, it builds the momentum for the side. Credit to the team and coaching staff, we work hard, create chances, and the sky’s the limit for us,” Jhingan said later.
India’s first shot on target came from a move originating on the left wing as Udanta Singh delivered an early low cross for Ashique Kuruniyan, who had the angle against him and hit his effort straight at goalkeeper Ali Sabeh.
On the other end, Amrinder had to make a much more difficult save to keep out Soony Saad’s header after a clinical Hussein Zein cross from the right. Minutes later, Chhangte’s free-kick attempt from 30 yards out sailed just over the bar.
Lebanon came out stronger after the break and began seeing more of the ball, pegging back the Indian backline. Zein Farran was their main threat down the right wing with his fast pace and strong dribbling skills. In the 53rd minute, he showed quick feet to skip past Mishra and send a stinging shot on goal but Anwar was on hand to block it.
India took time to settle in the second half, but eventually did get going. Sahal was put through on goal with a neatly threaded ball by Udanta but the Kerala Blasters man was caught offside by a small margin.
In the very next minute, Chhangte’s cross from the by-line fell just behind Udanta, who had to improvise and go for an overhead attempt, which looped over the bar.
It was India who finished the game on a stronger note. The 10-thousand-strong crowd roared with joy as Chhetri came on for the final 10 minutes of the game. His strike partner and fellow substitute Rahim Ali would have the next big chance of the game as he was picked out unmarked by Thapa but couldn’t make up his mind as to whether to shoot or set up a teammate, and the opportunity went begging. Minutes before full-time, a Thapa corner was headed wide by Chhetri.
The Hero Intercontinental Cup Final between India and Lebanon will take place on Sunday, June 18, at 19:30 IST.
Report- Pratyusha Mukherjee