India off to promising start

Chhetri, Pereira on target as defending champions overcome Syria 2-1

India continued to be Syria’s nemesis in the Nehru Cup football tournament with a flattering 2-1 victory on the opening day at the Jawarharlal Nehru Stadium on Wednesday.

 The victory was India’s first under its new Dutch coach Wim Koevermans, who had insisted the defending champions were the favourites despite being ranked lowest amongst the five participating teams.

 His wards did not disappoint with captain Sunil Chhetri (45+1) and Anthony Pereira (84th) giving India a 2-0 lead before Alaa Al Shbbli (90+2) pulled one back for Syria in the dying minutes.

The two sides made a measured start in front of a sparse gathering. Koevermans’ insistence on having a greater ball possession was evident in his side’s  game and even the defence looked more disciplined. Clifford Miranda and Syed Rahim Nabi led the midfield with skill, backing the defenders and feeding the strikers. Francisco Fernandes, who teamed up with skipper and key striker Chhetri in the absence of Jeje Lalpekhlua, also did a good job.

There were fewer gaps as the Indians worked their way in short passes and created a handful of openings. None could be converted, however.

Syria, who had lost two successive title clashes to the hosts in 2007 and 2009, defended with vigour . They were well supported by a handful but boisterous group who cheered their side with drums, songs and national flags.

Syria’s young forward Hani Altayar was impressive. He was quick and often scattered the Indian midfield, coming dangerously close to scoring on couple of occasions. One such effort, a solo, was wasted midway through the first half when his strike from inside the ‘D’ flew wayward.

Heavy downpour

The two teams played under a perpetual drizzle which soon turned into heavy downpour and play had to be briefly stopped after 34 minutes. On resumption, the two sides went all out but fumbled at the finish.

The first half looked poised to end goalless but in injury time, Clifford Miranda sent an aerial pass from the left to Chhetri who scored through a header.

Syria came attacking in the second half and even resorted to some rough tackle which earned them five yellow cards overall.  Their desperation to find an equaliser only resulted in half chances. India though continued to play aggressively and Pereira’s well placed left-footer minutes before the end firmed their grip on the match. 

Koevermans said he was ‘very pleased’ with the boys' performance. “For the first 20-25 minutes Syria dominated us. The match was heavily influenced by the weather. We had to change the tactics after the rain, and I asked the boys to put the ball forward and chip.

They did it well.  We also defended incredibly well,” he said. “I am very happy with Mehtab (Hossain) and Lenny Rodrigues. Sanju Pradhan brought a lot of power in the midfield. Hopefully, we can maintain the winning run.”

Nepalface Maldives on Thu-rsday while India play Maldives on Saturday.

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