Down to 10 men, India showed character to prevail 1-0 over Pakistan in the first friendly football match, the goal coming off the boot of Robin Singh who was sent off midway into the second half, making it a bitter-sweet day for the local striker in Bangalore on Sunday.
In the first of the two friendly matches, which is also Pakistan’s maiden appearance in a bilateral series in India, the visitors were laid low after Robin and captain Sunil Chhetri combined to put India in lead in the 44th-minute.
Captain Sunil Chhetri, who plays his club football for Bengaluru FC, tapped it in after Robin’s flick off a Lalrindika Ralte corner hit the post. The match commissioner strangely awarded the goal to Robin Singh, though.
Robin was given marching orders in the 69th minute for receiving his second yellow card of the match. Thereafter, India played with 10 men against a strong Pakistan, a fact which national coach Wim Koevermans stressed post-match, that he was “keen to see how the boys responded”.
The goal came at the stroke of interval. Even as everyone was expecting the whistle for the break, India earned another of their many corners of the day.
Ralte, who along with Pronoy Halder had played a stellar role for India in the AFC U-22 AFC Qualifiers in Muscat in 2012, and were displaying glimpses of their ‘telepathy’ on the field, curled in his corner at the first post which was met by Robin Singh. Robin timed his spotjump to perfection and his flick evaded all but hit the bar.
An agile Chhetri poached on the rebound and gleefully converted from close. Earlier, Pakistan were faster off the blocks, but India slowed it down, seized the initiative, kept the ball to themselves and slowly pushed the visitors onto the backfoot.
The confidence was visible and a series of raids even paved the way for some more goals only for the rival defence to recover in time.
The best chance in the first half came in the 29th minute but Pakistan goalkeeper Saqib Hanif stood in between. The triangle of Chhetri, Robin and Ralte almost put India ahead.
Robin received it from Chhetri inside the box and sent it for Ralte, but the latter’s placement was palmed away by an acrobatic Hanif.
As the match progressed, the nimble-footed Mandar Rao Desai, growing in confidence on the left flank was a thorn in the Pakistan defence.
First in the 34th minute, he set up Narayan Das, who crossed over to Robin but even as the rival defence managed to keep it at bay, Chhetri latched on to the second ball, went past his marker but his push hit a leg in the jungle and deflected out.
Three minutes later, Mandar feinted past Muhammad Bilal and tried to find Francis Fernandes inside the box but Riyaz recovered just in time as Francis was setting himself up to head it in.
Post resumption, Mandar was still weaving webs around Faisal Iqbal on the left. In the 56th minute, he dribbled past Iqbal to create space but his cross went wayward.
By then, the Chhetri-Robin combination was proving too hot to handle. In the 61st minute, an one-two between the duo split open the rival defence and even as Chhetri went for a placement in the first post itself, Hanif managed to keep it at bay.
The very next minute, another one-two found Chhetri in the clear but his left-footer went over; and in the 68th minute, Mandar’s powerful right-footer from the top of the box sailed over. However, India received a setback when Robin was given marching orders.
It reduced India to 10-men and, all of a sudden, much against the run of play, it seemed advantage Pakistan, especially with 21 minutes still to go. India did have their moments even after that. Mandar, Chhetri and Ralte interchanged between themselves and found space but Mandar’s cross was intercepted in time as Pakistan hung on.
The numerical superiority spurred Pakistan and they came close to restoring parity on a couple of occasions. Once, Kalemullah’s header off a corner bounced off the post and in the last minute, a placement from Saddam Hussain agonisingly went wide. The two teams meet again in the second match on Wednesday.