Indian reserves failed to impress as the defending champions went down 0-1 to Syria in the last round robin match of the Nehru Cup football in New Delhi on Saturday.
Both teams were unwilling to play at their full strength before the title showdown and reserved their best for Monday.
Indian coach Bob Houghton kept his frontline players in close wraps, making as many as five changes to the side that played Sri Lanka. Syria, too, did not field its top side. However, the West Asians were the better side on the park.
The win courtesy an Ali Dyab header in the 18th minute might give a slight psychological edge to Syria before the final as they would be out to avenge their 2007 final defeat at the same venue.
The only worry for Houhgton would be the reserves who were clearly rusty. The Englishman will know that he will have to fall back upon his star players including skipper Bhaichung Bhutia who sat out this match.
The positive for India was the performance of young-midfielder Syed Rahim Nabi and goalkeeper Subrata Paul, who is having a brilliant run in the tournament. India could have lost by a bigger margin had it not been for the heroics of Paul, who made as many as five acrobatic saves to keep down the margin of loss.
Nabi was effective on the right and compensated for the absence of Steven Dias for 70 minutes. Nabi was also exceptional after being promoted upfront following Sushil's replacement by Dias.
Playing for the first time together as strikers, Abhishek Yadav and Sushil Singh kept the pressure in the first 10 minutes but Yadav failed to connect his head twice to some pinpoint crosses that could have put the pressure on the visitors.
Sushil hardly went for a tackle and several moves of India turned ineffective.
Syria scored through a defensive lapse when an unmarked Dyab headed in from an accurate free-kick.
India came close to draw parity in the 67th minute but N.P. Pradeep's header hit the upright.
The crowd chanted 'Bhaichung Bhaichung,' and Houghton was unmoved. He instead gave 10 minutes to Sunil Chettri, who came on as a substitute for Yadav.