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Thursday, Aug 22, 2019

AFC Asian Cup 2019: Win over Thailand a big boost for Indian football team, says Jeje Lalpekhlua

Jeje Lalpekhlua, who came on as a late substitution in place of Ashique Kuruniyan, scored the final goal of the match as India registered a historic win over Thailand in the AFC Asian Cup 2019.

football Updated: Jan 08, 2019 17:32 IST
Sayan Ghosh
Sayan Ghosh
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Jeje Lalpekhlua celebrates after scoring for India against Thailand in the AFC Asian Cup 2019.
Jeje Lalpekhlua celebrates after scoring for India against Thailand in the AFC Asian Cup 2019.(AIFF)

The last time India won a match in the AFC Asian Cup, coach Stephen Constantine was just 2 years old and none of the current India footballers were even born. Since then, India have taken part in two more editions but without any success. However, it all changed on Sunday as the Sunil Chhetri-led side delivered a tactical masterclass to beat Thailand in their opening match of this year’s competition.

Although India were the second highest ranked team in their group, not many experts gave them a chance to book their place in the knockout stages. But, against Thailand, they were clearly the superior side when it came to tactics and as a result, they cruised to an impressive 4-1 win in Abu Dhabi.

Jeje Lalpekhlua, who came on as a late substitute in place of Ashique Kuruniyan, was able to put an exclamation mark on the victory as he scored the fourth goal of the game for his team and when asked about the victory, the excitement was clear in the voice of the Mizoram-based striker.

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“It was an amazing feeling for us to win the first game for India after 55 years. It is always brilliant to start the tournament with a win and this was a big confidence boost for us. However, the Thailand game is gone and we need to concentrate on UAE,” he told Hindustan Times in an exclusive interview.

It was an interesting approach by the India coach as he went with a traditional set-up but with a twist – Kuruniyan playing just behind skipper Chhetri to provide the attackers with extra support. That proved to be a masterstroke in the second half as the youngster combined with Udanta Singh in the midfield to catch the opposition off-guard.

Statistically, India did end the match with a much lesser percentage of the possession than their lower ranked opponents, but some brilliant finishing by the strikers saw the Blue Tigers complete an impressive win.

“The way we played in the matches before the Asian Cup made us believe in ourselves and in the last three years, it is quite clear that we have made a lot of improvements. Against Thailand, we did not have a huge number of chances to score but we converted them well and it worked in our favour,”

Sunil Chhetri celebrates his second goal during the AFC Asian Cup match against Thailand.
Sunil Chhetri celebrates his second goal during the AFC Asian Cup match against Thailand. ( AP )

“But, there were some places where we were found lacking in the first game and we will be working on them. Although we won the game with a big margin, the coach has pointed out places that bothered us against Thailand and our target is to produce a stronger game in the next matches,” Jeje added.

India drew first blood in the Group A encounter when Chhetri calmly converted a penalty to hand them the lead. Although Thailand was able to equalize, it was the skipper once again who produced a brilliant finish in the second half with Anirudh Thapa and Jeje adding to their tally with witty finishes. While all three strikers were lauded for their finishing skills, Jeje thought that his strike towards the end of the match was the best of the lot.

“Every goal is important irrespective of how the finish is. It can be a long ranger or a tap-in. But what matters is the goal. However, when it comes to the quality of the finish, I think maybe my goal was the best. Even the goal scored by Anirudh (Thapa) was quite impressive,” he said with a smile.

READ: Chhetri goes past Messi as India record historic win at AFC Asian Cup 2019

With Thailand out of the way, the next challenge awaiting the Blue Tigers are the hosts United Arab Emirates (UAE). The hosts were held to a 1-1 draw by Bahrain in the opening match of the tournament and they will be looking to register their first win of the tournament when they face India on Thursday.

When asked about the match, Jeje made it clear that the team is looking to rectify the mistakes they committed against Thailand and they will have to come up with a stronger plan to beat the hosts.

“In the last game, we made some mistakes. This time, we are facing a quality side like UAE and they will also have the home advantage. So, we needed to come back with a stronger plan against them. Personally, I would love to score more goals but the team’s performance is the first priority,” he said.

First Published: Jan 08, 2019 17:29 IST

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