It was a tale of two halves when India scripted a 4-1 win over Thailand on Sunday in their AFC Asian Cup opener. After a slightly underwhelming first-half where they allowed the Thai midfielders to dictate terms, India turned the tables in the second half and scored three goals.
It was another such tale in their second game against a much-higher ranked UAE on Thursday. Against an illustrious side coached by former Juventus and AC Milan coach Alberto Zaccheroni, very few would have expected India to start how they did.
Stephen Constantine's side started off exactly from where they left off against Thailand, pressing in unison and not allowing the UAE midfielders to settle on the ball. Ashique Kuruniyan, playing up top again, was a constant menace with his pace and physique. Pronay Halder and Anirudh Thapa were also assertive in midfield as India saw more of the ball and looked threatening whenever they forayed forward.
It was almost as if the team had a newfound confidence about them. The team did not look overawed by the occasion and were fearless despite taking on a side ranked 79th in the world at their den.
In fact, India should have taken the lead early on when Sandesh Jhingan went close with a couple of headers from set-pieces before UAE goalkeeper Khalid Eisa was forced into a couple of saves - first after Chhetri set Ashique through and the latter's shot was just about kep out and the second one from Chhetri's close-range header which really should have been put away.
Udanta Singh, who used his pace to excellent effect while chasing down long balls down the right wing, had a good half too. The UAE left-back had a torrid time, keeping tabs on the right winger.
But a hopeful long ball five minutes before half-time undid all of India's good work. Anas Edathodika made a mess of it and allowed Ali Mabhkout to set up Khalfan Mubarak. Had India held UAE at bay until half-time, the story could have different.
Constantine made a bold move to bring on Jeje Lalpekhlua in place of Halicharan Narzary at the break, keeping in line with India's fearless attitude. Rarely do we see India make an outright attacking substitution against a stronger opponent at half-time. And he almost repaid his manager after sending a volley just wide.
But UAE by this point had settled their nerves and were dictating proceedings in the second half. Zaccheroni's move to take off Khamis Ismail and replace him with Majed Hassan in midfield also brought more control. However, India should be credited for largely restricting UAE to half-chances. Much of that had to do with the superior fitness levels the players showed thorughout. Rarely did India look out of legs despite UAE enjoying almost 70 per cent possession in the second half at one point.
Even then, India could have equalised when Udanta saw a shot come off the cross-bar after combining brilliantly with Chhetri.
However, India's lack of a clinical striker or someone with an aerial presence in the box was evident as they chased the game. Constantine's side did not have an alternative approach to put the UAE defenders out of their comfort zone. There were hardly any crosses attempted in the final 20 minutes or so, partly due to the fact India lacked a striker who could have utilised them.
UAE's second goal probably was a bit harsh on the Blue Tigers but there is no taking away from a confident and fearless performance from India against a superior side.
This result is just a minor hiccup and India will fancy their chances of progressing to the knockouts on Monday when they take on Bahrain.