Baichung Bhutia was a motivated man on Sunday. He knew he had to deliver and, as is his wont, did it in style. He scored a goal and created another to fashion India’s 2-1 win over Krygystan in the Nehru Cup at the Ambedkar Stadium here.
India had to win to stay in contention after suffering a defeat in the first match against Lebanon. The win brought India on par with Sri Lanka, Lebanon and Syria, all with three points each. But Sri Lanka and Syria have played a match less. For Krygystan it was second defeat in as many matches.
Bhutia clearly had been assigned a job by Coach Bob Houghton, who rates him a rare diamond. Inspired by his coach’s words, Bhutia once again demonstrated his priceless contribution to Indian football, rising to the expectations of a capacity crowd. He was given a standing ovation when Sushil Singh replaced him with eight minutes to go. Bhutia had indeed done a wonderful job tonight.
The Indian approach was remarkably positive. The team had realized the potency of a collective charge and the onus was on the midfield where Climax Lawrence and N. P. Pradeep worked tirelessly to feed the two-man strike force of Bhutia and Sunil Chetri.
Bhutia and Chetri were not at their best but always on the prowl. The defence did an excellent job of crowding out the Krygystan snipers but the goal remained elusive even as India attacked relentlessly. The home team came close to scoring a couple of times but the finishing was poor.
Krygystan, led by the Anton Zemlianuhin’s probing runs on the flank and down the middle in tandem with Vadim Harchenko did create hopes for the team even as India continued to dominate. India also had to contend with the mercurial Almazbek Mirzaleiv, who was a constant threat with his off-the-ball sprints.
Under intense pressure from the flanks, the Krygytsan defence slackened its pace in the closing stages of the first half and paid dearly. A long ball from goalkeeper Subrata Paul astonishingly reached Bhutia following a defensive lapse and the veteran produced a crafty goal. He slipped into the left corner of the six-yard box and deftly rolled the ball to the far corner. The goalkeeper, Pavel Matiash, was beaten and the ball nestled in the net after hitting the post.
India messed up in the 48th minute when Climax Lawrence and Bhutia failed to score in succession as the Krygystan defence collapsed and the goalkeeper stood stranded. Lawrence hit straight to the goalkeeper after Bhutia’s drive had hit the post. But Bhutia was not to be denied and he earned India a penalty when he broke into the box and was pulled down by a desperate goalkeeper. The penalty was comfortable converted by Chetri in the 57th minute.
There was drama at the other end when India conceded a penalty. Paul, who had an outstanding match, passed the stern test flawlessly, this time showing amazing anticipation to block Mirzaliev’s shot on his right. Nothing worked in Krygystan’s favour tonight even though it reduced the margin through Mirlan Murzaev at the stroke of the four-minute added time. India defended stoutly to prevent a disaster.
On Monday, Syria will meet Sri Lanka.