Lebanon won the battle of attrition against India with an early strike that was good enough to carry the team on a humid evening as the Nehru Cup got off to a discouraging and unexpected start for the home team on Wednesday.
India had nurtured hopes of winning but ran into a more determined and far fitter outfit at the Ambedkar Stadium. The lone goal came from a booming free kick by Ali Al Saad in the fourth minute.
The Indians were repeatedly beaten in the air but ironically the team came close to scoring from two strong headers, well directed, but not incisive enough to get past the Lebanese goalkeeper Lary Mehanna.
Sushil Singh, who worked tirelessly, and N. P. Pradeep, ever on the look-out for an opening, rose to meet the ball but Lebanon managed to hang in.
Raising the game
Halfway through the first session the Indians realised they had to raise their game. And raise the game they did even if it meant over-stretching in the midfield. Pradeep and Steven Dias created more square passes leaving the strikers frustrated and the Indian performance improved once the home team chose to slow down the pace.
Lebanon bombarded India in the first five minutes. The attacks were planned and carried out in a flash, giving the home team many anxious moments. The Lebanese were relentless and the Indians aimless. The audience became restless as they were unable to fathom why their heroes could not even put foot to the ball.
There was a pattern in the Lebanese assaults. At any stage, they had five men converging on the ball. The Indians were overwhelmed by the growing pressure that the Lebanese midfield created and it was not surprising when they dropped guard in the fourth minute.
The attack originated in the Lebanese defence. The trio of Mohammed El Ali, Hamze Abboud and Mohammad Ghaddar took over and created gaping holes in the Indian defence. The move gathered pace and was set to rock the Indians when Climax Lawrence bought temporary reprieve with a foul on El Ali.
The free kick created hope for the Lebanese. And the goal, too, as the tall and strong Ali Al Saad unleashed a precise drive that swerved and sank into the right corner past a diving Subrata Paul.
The goal galvanised the Indians even as Lebanon fell into complacency and indulged in some gallery show. It helped India regroup and the moves became far more meaningful.
The thrust came from Surkumar Singh and Gourmangi Singh showing the heart to move up, at times abandoning their posts. India needed to attack to counter the Lebanese designs. The first half ended with the latter in a happier frame of mind.
Tactics changed in the second session. The endurance factor came into focus and India was forced to bring in Sunil Chetri for his superior scoring prowess than Sushil. It made little difference since Lebanon closed ranks and denied India a clear view of its goal.