In the biggest match of their lives in the biggest international event they have been a part of in over eight years, India put their attacking instincts into deep freeze, hunkered down in their own half and paid a brutal price. If ever Bahrain, requiring nothing less than a win to progress, needed a sign that the enormity of the occasion had got the better of their opponents, it came a moment close to halftime.
Captain Pronay Halder, who was having an inspired first half, released a pass from the centre out wide to winger Udanta Singh, who was a touch slow to get to the ball. As the ball rolled out for a throw in, Bahrain restarted play even as Halder began giving Udanta an earful for not doing more to get to the ball. With a Bahrain player overlapping with the resultant ball, right-back Pritam Kotal then had to throw his body in to deflect an intended cross for a corner. He turned around and yelled at both Halder and Udanta to focus on the present.
It was, as veteran Sunil Chhetri described it, the five percent flaws that were to teach India a manifest lesson.
"At this level, there's no 95 percent," he said "You've got to go at 100 percent every game." Bahrain found new resolve and strength as India slipped into desperation over control in the second half. The match and the opportunity to become the first Indian team to progress into the Asian Cup knockout round was lost 1-0 in the most diabolical of ways - with a penalty conceded in the 90th minute.
India, who began the Asian Cup with a 4-1 rout of Thailand playing some inspired attacking football, left the UAE with their most timid performance of three against Bahrain and both Chhetri and the team found themselves, "gutted, disappointed, angry".
If the 2-0 defeat to UAE was marked by some lack of fortune with the finishing, India appeared to have made their peace with playing for a draw, which would have taken them into the round of 16 irrespective of the UAE-Thailand game, but Chhetri clarified that was never the intention. "We weren't (going for a draw) but probably it was in the back of our mind. When we had a team meeting, we knew we had to go," he said. "We had to press, but as the game went by, and the realisation hit us -- 'it's 70 minutes, 60 minutes, 0-0, keep it like that' -- so we defended deeper and deeper. If 89th minute, that (penalty call) hadn't happened, you would have said, 'you know what, great defending, India.' It's just one of those days."
India's lack of attack was summed up by the stats -- they managed three shots in total, two off target by Chhetri and Rowllin Borges, and one blocked off Subhasish Bose. They managed none on target through 90 minutes, and Chhetri put it down to composure on the big occasion. "We needed to have guts, and it starts from me too to keep the ball and calm down, because they were desperate. They had two men behind, and if we kept the ball, (in) 3-4 passes and we would have been two-versus-two, and we probably didn't think at that time, and we just kept defending. Everything that could have gone wrong happened -- the other game 1-1, 90th-minute penalty. We learn the hard way now," he said.
"Although we defended well, I think we defended too much. We should have kept the ball more. Sometimes when you need a draw, this is what happens, and it's something that we learnt today. I just hope we become stronger from here."