It was 13 years ago in Guangzhou, China, when India made the pre-quarter-finals of the Asian Games 2010 for the last time before bowing to the continental powerhouse, Japan.
The feat was repeated on Sunday, September 24, 2023, again and in China only, though the venue this time was the city of Hangzhou, where India withstood a strong challenge from Myanmar to make the grade with a 1-1 draw. With four points from three matches, which also included a win against Bangladesh and a loss to hosts China, the Blue Tigers have earned the right to face mighty Saudi Arabia in the round of 16 on Thursday.
India’s head coach, Igor Stimac, is happy to make the grade, though he feels his team could have walked out with full points instead of settling for one. “It was an interesting game and was fought hard.
“We knew Myanmar would be tough, as they too were looking for a place in the next round. They were not ready to leave an inch, they were quick and were coming well on the counter-attacks. But my boys stood firm and thwarted all the attacks.
“I am happy that we could make the last 16 under circumstances that were not always in our favour. All credit goes to the boys for playing with such determination. We could have killed the game earlier as we missed some chances,” rued the coach.
After taking the lead in the 23rd minute off a penalty converted by skipper Sunil Chhetri, India had a series of chances in the second half. Gurkirat Singh and Rahim Ali had opportunities in front of the rival goal, but they went abegging.
Despite the lack of preparation and training time because of domestic commitments, the head coach said that his boys did a wonderful job and he was proud of them. He also looked at the positive side of the Asian Games campaign.
“The biggest positive from the three matches was that I could spot a few boys who could be part of the National team in the near future. They have performed creditably in the three matches here so far. That’s a always great takeaway for a coach,” said Stimac from Hangzhou.
Asked about Chhetri’s performance in the 270 minutes he played in the Asian Games with two goals to his credit, Stimac laughed. “Chhetri played the entire duration of the three matches because he wanted to play, he didn’t want to come out. That’s what my captain is. Even when there were problems in the midfield, he was coming down to organise things and provide the passes for the attack. His commitment is amazing,” the head coach said.
“We can now concentrate on the Saudi Arabia game. We can now have two days of good training. Saudi are a good team, all of us know about it. But we will fight it out on the pitch. We surprised lots of people by reaching the last 16. Maybe we have some more surprises in store. Who knows,” asked Stimac.