A brave performance by the Indian women's U20 football team saw them draw 1-1 with hosts Vietnam in their final Group F game of the 2024 AFC U-20 Women's Asian Cup Qualifiers Round 1, here on Saturday.
Though both teams finished on seven points from three matches in the four-team group, the result knocked India out of contention for Round 2 of the qualifiers due to an inferior goal difference -- India ended with a goal difference of +13; Vietnam had +14.
After having registered two comprehensive victories against Singapore and Indonesia in their opening two fixtures, India were faced with a must-win situation against the hosts on Saturday. As it was, despite a performance that at times was brilliant and eye-catching, India were knocked out without actually going down at all.
Though the fact remains that India were stopped in their tracks on goal difference only, It will do little to comfort coach Maymol Rocky. India never conceded the lead in the qualifiers and crashed out despite being unbeaten in three games.
The game kicked off with India in the ascendancy, the hosts' nervousness evident in their inability to string clean passes in the midfield. India made the most of this, quietly producing some slick football to keep the pressure up and the partisan crowd on edge.
In the 12th minute, Babina Devi produced a moment of magic that silenced the crowd at the Viet Tri Stadium. The midfielder picked up a half-cleared header -- from Neha's cross -- around 30 yards from goal, took a neat first touch and let fly. The ball rocketed into the top left corner, Vietnam goalkeeper Danh Thi Kieu My's fingers grasping at it but unable to do much more. It was a world-class goal produced in a crunch game.
It tilted the balance of play too. Shocked and a bit dazed, Vietnam started stringing together passes and controlling more of the game, while India looked happy to sit back and play on the counter. Chances flew at both ends, the hosts arguably the ones with the better ones. Babina, full of confidence, had another go from distance, albeit finding the goalkeeper this time.
Right on the stroke of half-time, Vietnam had their reward. The ball fell to Tran Nhat Lan in the Indian box, who let fly only to see her shot bounce off the post. Fortuitously, the rebound went through several shirts and fell back to her. This time, she turned, twisted and placed the ball into the opposite corner to draw her team level.
Buoyed by a vocal crowd, and with the knowledge that a draw would see them through, Vietnam slowed the game down in the second period, drawing fouls, and turning the match into a rather dull affair.
Rocky's two substitutes Sumati Kumari and Mousumi Murmu brought some much-needed vigour to a floundering front line but were unable to pierce the Vietnam defence. In the end, it all ended in heartbreak, but with much to be proud of.
( 520 Words)