One defensive blunder and poor supervision hurt defending champions India who started their ONGC Nehru Cup campaign with a whimper, losing to Lebanon at the floodlit Ambedkar Stadium on Wednesday.
Like in the World Cup qualifiers against the west Asian nation two years ago, Bob Houghton's boys again conceded from a set-piece. Ali Al Saad's fifth-minute cannonball sailed home giving Subrata Pal in the Indian goal no chance.
After a nervy start, India controlled the game and, especially in the last 10 minutes of the first half and the first quarter of the second, had the Lebanon backline earning its keep. Bhaichung Bhutia was denied what looked like a penalty, referee Miron Abdul Hannan surprising the goodly turnout by booking the India skipper for diving. Just before half-time, Sushil Singh drove a Bhutia prompt which Lebanon goalie Lary Mehana superbly tipped over.
This was little after N.P. Pradeep's header, off a Steven Dias free-kick — earned after Bhutia was fouled — went inches off the far post. Another of Dias's free-kicks, won by Sunil Chhetri's enterprise, careened off a Lebanese defender and looked like it had loped into goal but referee didn't entertain India's appeal, awarding a foul instead.
And soon after the goal, Bhutia failed to connect a swerving cross from the left after N.S. Manju went on the overlap. Manju was replaced by Mahesh Gawli after he was injured.
The goal may have been avoided had Surkumar Singh not messed up a regulation clearance. Climax Lawrence too botched an attempt to get the ball out and finally conceded a free-kick. “We have again conceded from a set-piece. We did the same in the World Cup qualifiers against them (Lebanon),” India coach Bob Houghton.
“After the goal, they had the momentum going their way, but we got better after the first 20 minutes,” Houghton said. He also mentioned that the park, used for Independence Day celebrations, wasn't in good shape. “I hope the organisers look into it before the next match,” Houghton said.
Chhetri came on as a half-time substitute and Houghton explained it was “because he hasn't played for more than 45 minutes in the past three months. So it won't be easy for him to straightway play the full 90 minutes.
With nothing to show for all their domination, India began to look ragged in the final quarter. The park made it difficult to play along the ground and that too helped Lebanon close them down. India's ability to work around the taller opponents during set-pieces - Dias directing quite a few of them to Pradeep who won more aerial duels than he lost - was but a small positive. A greater worry would be the inability to land long-rangers on target - Pradeep being guilty on at least two occasions — and executing better final passes.
This is not the end of the road, but Wednesday's result must have left India and their English coach a little worried.
Syria vs Krygyzstan
Runners-up in the last edition, Syria start against Kyrgyzstan who are 160th in the current FIFA rankings here on Thursday. Kyrgyzstan, who finished third in 2007, have a young side and will have a point to prove. “We are here to test our young players, said coach Anarbek Ormonbokeev.
Syria, at 96 the only team inside the top 100 in this ONGC Nehru Cup, will be without two top players Zyad Chaabo and Maher Al Sayad, who has retired. In their absence, Syria coach Fajir Ebrahim will be banking on his top striker Mohammed Al Zeno.