Al Rayyan (Qatar), Jan 13 (PTI) India kept former champions Australia at bay till the 50th minute before eventually losing their AFC Asian Cup football tournament opening group match 0-2 in a gritty performance here on Saturday.
Australia were the overwhelming favourites to win the Group B match and nobody gave India a chance but Igor Stimac's men denied their mighty opponents any success in the first half and then five minutes into the second session, dishing out a superb defensive show.
The Indians, though, ran out of steam later on in the face of waves of attacks from the rampaging Australians, who won the title in 2015 and are ranked 25th in the world as against 102nd of Stimac's team.
Jackson Irvine (50th minute) and Jordan Bros (73rd) scored for Australia to take home full three points from the match at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium.
India, however, did better than their 0-4 loss to Australia in a group match in the 2011 Asian Cup.
The Indians would not be too disappointed by the margin of loss. Perhaps, they would be happy to have conceded just two goals, which may prove beneficial later on when the third-place team is decided from the group.
The top two teams from each group, along with four best third-placed sides from across six groups, progress to the knockout round of 16. A knock-round berth will be a huge achievement for India.
Stimac had told his players before the Australia match to remain compact defensively and avoid giving away set-pieces if they want to deny the physically and technically much superior Australians from scoring goals.
His wards executed his plans to the 'T' in respect to the first instruction but was less successful in the second as the Australians got enough set pieces, though most of them were corner kicks, to score. But to the credit of the Indians, they did not concede any goal from the set pieces.
For almost the whole first 45 minutes, the Indians sat really deep with all the 11 players, including captain Sunil Chhetri, defending in their own half as the rampaging Australians did all the attacking.
With no Indian attack bothering him, Australia captain and goalkeeper Mathew Ryan stationed himself near the centre line and egged his team-mates for most part of the first half.
India, though, got one golden chance to stun the mighty Australians in the 16th minute but Chhetri missed it. Nikhil Poojary worked on the right flank and sent a beautiful cross and Chhetri sneaked out of three defenders to head the ball towards the Australian goal but it went wide.
The vociferous crowd, mostly Indian supporters, in the 45,000-capacity stadium could not believe it, so too the Indian dug out.
But, it was the Australians who were all over the place as they came in waves of attacks and crosses from both the flanks as the Indians crowded in their box and threw in their bodies at times to block the shots.
Defensive mainstay Sandesh Jhingan sustained a cut on his right forehead after an aerial duel in the first half and he played with a bandage.
Connor Metcalfe had a golden opportunity to give Australia the lead in the 21st minute but his shot from the top of the box was deflected by Indian goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who initially committed the mistake of kicking into an opponent from a backpass.
After having overwhelming share of ball possession in the first session, the Australians were not to be denied too long as they took the lead in the 50th minute through an Irvine strike.
Considering the valiant vigil in the first half, it was a soft goal conceded by the Indians. Sandhu came out of line to connect to a high cross from the right. He had a hand on the ball but could neither get hold of it nor was he able to palm it away farther.
The ball fell to Irvine whose left-footed shot went past the crowded Indian defence to bulge the net.
Trailing by a goal, the Indians had to change their defensive strategy and open up a bit, which, however, created chances for the Australians who made it 2-0 in the 73rd minute.
Substitute Riley McGree outpaced Lalengmawia Ralte on the right side and he sent a cross for Bros to fire in Australia's second goal.
Australia, however, escaped from conceding a bizarre goal in the 69th minute. They lost the ball at the back after the Indians pressed high and a backpass had too much power heading towards the goal, with Ryan way off his line.
However, the ball changed its path in the end and Ryan recovered to clear it.
India play Uzbekistan on January 18 in their second group match. PTI PDS AM PDS AM AM