Igor Stimac's reign as the head coach of the Indian team got off to a losing start as India succumbed to a 3-1 defeat to Curacao in the opening fixture of the 47th King's Cup at the Chang Arena, in Buriram, Thailand.
Brandon Fernandes, Sahal Abdul Samad, and Rahul Bheke were handed their senior national team debuts as the Croatian rallied his troops in a familiar 4-2-3-1 formation with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu under the sticks. The four-man backline comprised of Bheke and Sandesh Jhingan at the heart of defence with Pritam Kotal and Subhasish Bose in their usual right-back and left-back positions respectively.
Pronay Halder slotted in the role of a double pivot alongside Brandon Fernandes. Udanta Singh and Lallianzuala Chhangte occupied the two wings while skipper Sunil Chhetri led the lines from the front who also became the most capped (108 appearances) player in Indian history.
It was a tale of two halves as far as India were concerned. If the first half was marred by silly defensive errors which allowed Curacao to race away to a 3-1 lead at half-time, then the second half was much more solid with a couple of chances falling in India's way. However, the opponents had taken their foot off the pedal by then.
India got their first sight on goal in the eighth minute when Fernandes churned out a beautifully measured long ball which was brought under control by Samad with a deft first touch. The Kerala Blasters midfielder pulled it back looking for Chhangte but the winger was a fraction late to show up which allowed Curacao's defence to clear their lines.
Minutes later, Luis Bonevacia did well before trying his luck from distance but his effort sailed wide of the post.
Curacao started tightening the noose around India and they were rewarded on the 15th minute when they drew first blood through Bonevacia after he latched on to a low cross from Magno Nepomuceno. The two centre backs should have done much better as the Al-Faisaly man was left completely unmarked and he tapped in past a hapless Gurpreet.
Three minutes later, Bicentini's men doubled the lead after Bheke lost the physical battle in midfield and gave away possession to Bonevacia, who continued to be in the thick of things. The midfielder released Elson Oohoi and the winger kept his calm to find the net after showing a clean pair of heels to Gurpreet who came out of his line to narrow down the angle.
Stimac resorted to a three-man backline after falling two behind with Bose and Kotal deploying themselves as wing-backs with Halder dropping deep in defence.
On the half-hour mark, India pulled one back through Chhetri after the 33-year old converted a spot-kick, awarded for a high boot on Sahal Abdul Samad inside the box.
Soon, Curacao restored their two-goal lead as Bacuna scored in the 33rd minute. Bheke was left for dead by Bonevacia as the Bengaluru FC defender was tricked by a back-heel which fell for Bacuna with acres of space in front of him. The Cardiff City man took his time and then rifled a shot beyond the reach of Gurpreet to take the game out of India's reach.
Two minutes from half-time, India got another sight of goal but Curacao's keeper Eloy Room put in a brilliant save to deny Udanta from close range.
Stimac decided to freshen things up at halftime and brought on debutants Amarjit Singh and Raynier Fernandes to solidify the midfield.
After the changes, India looked a more composed side. They had more purpose while going forward with the ball though Curacao displayed much less intensity in their game. They were content to sit back and see the game out.
Stimac threw in Michael Soosairaj in the 65th-minute to add more fire in the attacking third in an attempt to make up the two-goal deficit.
In the 72nd minute, Samad could have graced his debut with a goal after he got at the end of a cross from Raynier but pressure from Bacuna forced him to settle for the side-netting. Eight minutes later, Sahal released Amarjit in a pocket of space but before the former U17 skipper could set himself up for a shot he was crowded out by two blue shots.
India kept up the pressure in their bid to cut down the deficit but luck seemed to be not on their side. Kotal produced an inch-perfect cross for Chhetri but the header ricocheted off the near post whereas Jhingan's injury-time header was cut out by a brilliant save from Room to keep the scoreline unchanged.