When India U17 coach Luis Norton de Matos announced the starting XI against Colombia in their second group FIFA U17 World Cup group match, there was a notable absentee. Komal Thatal, the wiry lad who enthralled all with his energetic runs in the opening game against USA was missing. Instead, he pushed Rahul KP forward and brought in Boris Singh at right-back.
That was not all - Suresh Wangjam made way in midfield for Jeakson Singh and Jitendra Singh was replaced by Namit Deshpande in central defence. Aniket Jadhav also made way for a taller striker in Rahim Ali. The purpose was clear - Norton de Matos wanted physicality in his team against the Colombians, who were built like Patton tanks when compared to the Indian boys.
Komal, for all his flashes of brilliance, was often bundled off the ball very easily against USA and became a casualty of the team's immediate need. All Norton's changes were physically superior players.
The difference was there for all to see. Though India did not enjoy much of the possession in the early exchanges, they were not cowering as they did against USA in the initial minutes. Colombia worked the ball around for long periods without really doing anything with it. Jeakson and the tireless Amarjit ensured they got no change through the middle while Boris Singh and Sanjeev Stalin were pacy enough to deal with Colombia's probing from the wide areas.
One also witnessed a concerted effort from the Indian players to assert themselves physically, even against bigger opponents. Jeakson Singh was very influential in midfield, winning numerous balls and exerting a calming influence on proceedings.
Norton de Matos had also drilled the side very well, with the team keeping their shape defensively with two banks of four and Abhijit and Rahim Ali pressing together from the front. So much so that Colombia had only some long range efforts to show for their dominance for much of the first half. Pointedly, they tried playing diagonals for their widemen - Penaloza and Campaz - to chase but were often caught offside - an impressive feat given that wingers have the entire defensive line in their view while making their runs.
However, for all Colombia's possession, two of the best chances in the first half went to India. One when Abhijit Sarkar and Boris combined brilliantly to set the former up with a chance but he saw his shot saved from close range. Second chance, also fashioned by the impressive Boris, fell to Rahul who saw his volley crash off the crossbar. Clearly, India were not having any success in wooing lady luck.
After a goalless opening period, three key moments in the second half fashioned the result of the game and two of them, stemming from lapses in concentration, cost India. Four minutes after the break, Penaloza was afforded too much time and space on the right wing and the Colombian, who saw Sanjeev backing off, cut onto his left foot and fired one into the bottom corner.
A startled India, however, mounted a fightback and did fashion several half-chances but to no avail. They did not throw caution to the winds, crucially, and played intelligently - taking time over freekicks, throw-ins to ensure Colombia's momentum was arrested.
Norton's substitutions were shrewd too - he brought on Aniket Jadhav for Abhijit Sarkar and Nongdamba Naorem for a cramping Boris, with Rahul shifting to right back. Both the substitutes combined very well soon after but the latter's shot was saved by the Colombian custodian's outstretched leg.
Though chasing the game, India did not lose composure in defence creditably and did not afford their opponents much of a leeway with Namit and Anwar Ali dealing with whatever crosses that came into the box with ease. Their industry and commitment would not go to waste as the historic moment arrived at last in the 82nd minute.
Norton de Matos had spoken plenty of times about the importance of set-pieces and had drilled the side to make the most of it when it arrives. He was proved right as Sanjeev Stalin whipped in a corner for Jeakson Singh to leap high, wind himself into a coil and release to send a thumping header into the back of the net and in the process ensuring the expectant fans lifted the roof off the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in the national capital.
Norton de Matos was jubilant, arms raised in vindication as the delirious crowd savoured a historic moment, but his joy would turn to ashes almost immediately. Football is a cruel and fickle mistress who will send you from the euphoria of triumph to the depths of despair with one stroke.
That is exactly what transpired in Delhi, with the Colombia catching the Indian defence, still celebrating that goal, off guard and Penaloza slotted home to shush an entire nation.
Yes, India did not grab any points from the game in the end but the performance from the young team was nothing short of exceptional. One has to consider the fact that the Colombians, technically and physically superior, found it difficult to penetrate into the Indian penalty area with Anwar Ali and Namit Deshpande putting in impressive shifts. One has to point out Anwar Ali here, India's best player on the night, for the tremendous commitment he showed. The Punjabi lad was decisive in his tackles, interventions generally looked a class apart in defence.
Dheeraj Singh, also did no harm to his burgeoning reputation with another energetic display, laced with several good saves and commendable game awareness.
But the headlines on the night belonged to Jeakson Singh, who himself was brilliant, and the heart-breaking nature of the result should not divert one from the fact that this team has done what many considered impossible for an Indian team - compete on a level footing with the world's best and emerge with their heads held high.