2019 AFC Asian Cup, Group Stage
  • Khalfan Mubarak (41')
  • Ali Mabkhout Al-Hajeri (88')

Sandesh Jhingan stands tall as poor finishing lets India down vs UAE

In the last minute of regulation time during the first half, a free kick from UAE, leading 1-0 already, is floated in towards the near post from the left side of attack, even as the Indian defence prepares to cover the far post.

It brings together two giant men, with UAE defender Ismail Ahmed Mohamed using all of his 6'4" frame to edge ahead of centre-back Sandesh Jhingan, just three inches shorter, to glance a header towards Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. The ball is collected, but a clash of heads leaves the two men down. Jhingan rises to his feet three minutes later, his head bandaged, while Ismail is taken off on a stretcher with a bloodied forehead.

It has been a busy day at the office for Jhingan already, but nothing can keep him off the pitch when he pulls on an India shirt.

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Thursday would have begun for Jhingan with his usual pre-match routine of calling his parents and offering a prayer at his hotel room desk before leaving for the stadium. "I don't like to get too much hyper, even though it seems contradictory to how I am on the pitch. I like to be calm," he would say on the eve of the game.

As the teams walk out in front of a heaving capacity crowd of 43,208 at the Zayed Sports City Stadium for the start of the game, Jhingan is an isle of calm, walking between Ashique Kuruniyan and his defensive partner Anas Edathodika.

Jhingan is switched on from the first minute, joining Anas in keeping a tight lid on Al Jazira striker Ali Ahmed Mabkhout, who is played in with some long balls to test the Indian defence. UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni starts with Ismail to add some height and muscle to his defence as well, and the fun begins when India have Pritam Kotal and Udanta Singh combine to produce the first corner in the seventh minute. Off Anirudh Thapa's corner, Jhingan uses off-the-ball movements of his partners to free up some space and then shrugs off his marker, before getting his header off target in an attempt to beat Khalid Eisa Bilal in goal.

After a little word of caution from Mexican referee Cesar Ramos to both himself and Ahmed, Jhingan comes close again off another corner in the first quarter of the game, as indeed do both Ashique and Sunil Chhetri, but Eisa is a difficult man to beat between the posts today. When the ball is in UAE's possession, Jhingan takes it upon himself to make sure he is the last man standing in the Indian defensive zone. Captain Ismail Al-Hammadi, himself a muscular figure, is given no leeway to roam inside the Indian penalty box, and finds a nudge returned with an arm across his back to rebuff his overture.

UAE eventually break India down, but it is more down to Mabkhout taking advantage of just a second's indecision from Anas in dealing with a pass while running back towards goal. Anas looks distraught, but Jhingan has a chat with him to tell him to put it all behind as UAE and the crowd celebrate their first goal from open play of these championships as one.

In the second half, Ahmed is back with a white bandage as well, but it is India who find a second wind with Jeje Lalpekhlua's introduction in place of the winger Halicharan Narzary. In the space of the first 15 minutes, Jeje narrowly misses the target from a superb chest-and-volley, Udanta beats Eisa but cannot beat the crossbar, while Chhetri's free kick just goes over the top after beating the wall.

Through all of this, Jhingan stands resolute in the Indian defence, and while he routinely communicates with his fellow defenders to ensure they don't rush things when in possession, Al-Hammadi extracts a bit of revenge for the earlier challenge by giving him a knock on the shin in the 66th minute.

In the last 20 minutes, the spirits and energy levels of both teams are sagging after a massive effort, though Al-Hammadi has enough legs to hit the post once. A backwards header from Anas off a dangerous swerving cross goes out for a corner, but earns a high five from Jhingan.

With better finishing, India could have had more goals, but their profligacy comes back to haunt them when Mabkhout picks up a cross ball and beats Kotal to find space and shoot past Sandhu. In injury time, Jhingan almost extracts an own goal from the UAE defence with a run at the near post off a set piece.

At full-time, the Indians sink to their knees, and Jhingan is bent in a quick prayer, before burying his face in his jersey, as Sandhu walks by for a pep talk.

UAE go top of the Group A points table, replacing India with a professional performance, but they know they have been in a contest, where the tiniest fractions went in their favour. There's mutual respect between the teams at the end, and an acknowledgement that this has been an unlikely clash of equals in this competitive tournament. Jhingan, like India, made mistakes but stood tall as one of the performers of the night.

If you walk by the Zayed Sports City Stadium at midnight, you might just find the shadow of Sandesh Jhingan still guarding the far right of the pitch, near the Indian goal.