Dubai: Goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh’s heroics under the bar did wonders for India as Igor Stimac’s team had their best-ever finish in the AFC U-23 Asian Cup Qualifiers to date, after they held Kyrgyz Republic to a goalless draw in their final qualifying game at the Fujairah Stadium late on Saturday night.
Earlier, UAE beat Oman 2-0 to end as the toppers of Group E in the AFC U-23 Asian Cup Qualifiers.
The match between India and Kyrgyz Republic ended in a stalemate. Both sides finished the group on four points apiece, with the same goal difference (zero), and goals scored (2). India won a penalty shoot out held to decide the second and third spots in Group E.
In the penalty shootout, Dheeraj started with a couple of spectacular saves. Rahul KP, Rohit Danu, Suresh Singh, and Rahim Ali scored from the spot.
Stimac made only one change to the starting XI from the previous game against the UAE. He handed Amarjit Singh his first start in this campaign as he replaced Jeakson Singh in the middle. Lalengmawia Ralte tried to fire the opening salvo as early as the fifth minute. His long-ranger could not pose any threat to the Kyrgyz defence.
Two minutes later, Rahul, from the left flank, outran Kumarbai Uulu with sheer pace. Eventually Adilet Kanybekov neutralised his effort.
The central Asian outfit sprung to life three minutes later. Forward Alygulov Maksat was denied by Narender inside the 18-yard-box. Five minutes later, the youngster cancelled Tapaev Temirbolot’s right-footed curler.
Rahim shielded off Artiukov Daniil before rolling it to an onrushing Vikram. Vikram’s left-footed effort flew away from the target in the 21st minute. The forward played another pivotal role a minute later as he passed the ball to Amarjit, but the Manipuri midfielder skied his effort after four minutes.
Borubaev Gulzhigit beat the offside trap to outpace Asish Rai from the left. Dheeraj came up with a spectacular save after the half-hour mark to keep the score unscathed. Both teams headed to the changing room with the scores unchanged.
Kyrgyz Republic resumed with more intent and came close to breaking the deadlock in the 50th minute but Maksat skied his effort. India appealed for a penalty on the hour-mark anticipating a handball inside the Kyrgyz box but the Maldivian referee Mohamed Javiz paid no attention.
India latched on their best possible chance seven minutes later when Deepak Tangri put an acrobatic bicycle kick from handshaking distance, only to be thwarted by Kyrgyz goalkeeper Tokotaev Erzhan.
Ten minutes before the end of regulation time, substitute Rohit Danu could have opened the scoreline, but Narender’s shot from an acute angle was fisted away by the goalkeeper leaving the Indian dugout aghast.
With both teams tied on the same number of points, goal difference, and goals scored, the match went into a penalty shootout to decide who finishes second and third, respectively, in Group E.
Dheeraj made a couple of scintillating saves in the penalty shoot-out before Rahim Ali scored the winning spot-kick to elevate India to the second position in the group.
India U-23 XI: Dheeraj Singh; Asish Rai, Narender Gahlot, Deepak Tangri, Akash Mishra (Sumit Rathi 79′); Vikram Partap Singh (Bryce Miranda 88′), Suresh Singh, Lalengmawia, Amarjit Singh (Rohit Danu 67′), Rahul KP; Rahim Ali.