By Rohith Nair
AL RAYYAN, Qatar (Reuters) -A physical Australia side dominated India to win their Asian Cup Group B opener 2-0 in front of a crowd largely made up of Indian fans at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium on Saturday.
After a cagey opening 45 minutes, Australia got on the board through Jackson Irvine before Jordan Bos made it 2-0 seconds after coming on as a substitute.
The encounter felt almost like a home game for India with the crowd largely made up of fans from the Indian diaspora in Doha and they made their presence felt, roaring the team on despite Australia’s early dominance.
But after being shut out in the first half, Australia silenced most of the fans with the opening goal soon after the break. Their second deflated the India team and the crowd.
“The excitement of the first game (of the Asian Cup) got to the players in the first half,” Australia coach Graham Arnold said.
“At halftime, we discussed where we could hurt India and calmed them down. We told them, ‘Just be patient and it will come’.”
The match also saw Japan’s Yoshimi Yamashita become the first woman to referee a men’s Asian Cup game, with assistant referees Makoto Bozono and Naomi Teshirogi making it an all-female trio.
Spurred on by the crowd, India skipper Sunil Chhetri missed a golden opportunity when he sent a header wide, but Australia turned the screws thereafter and controlled possession as the Indians rarely managed to venture out of their own half.
It soon became apparent that India were no match for Australia’s physicality across the pitch as the 2015 champions regularly won duels to prevent Igor Stimac’s side from progressing the ball.
“Very difficult match for us with the physicality of Australia, we suffered from their corners,” Stimac said.
“We couldn’t get out of the zone and were unable to make that second pass to move past the halfway line… Australia are more experienced, they read situations better.”
India held firm until halftime, but five minutes after the restart Australia found the breakthrough.
India goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh failed to deal with a cross and his tame effort to palm it away fell to Irvine, who needed no second invitation to score.
“We had to be patient. These games are cagey when teams play deep,” Irvine said. “We created some really good moments but maybe rushed things in the first half.”
The goal took the wind out of India’s sails and Australia capitalised with a second in the 73rd minute when Riley McGree dribbled into the box and cut a pass back for Bos to score.
Although Australia took all three points, Arnold said there was still room for improvement.
“One disappointment was our set pieces. You’ve got to credit India for how they set up against that,” he added.
“Full credit to India for their determination and their fight, they put their bodies on the line a lot of times when we had opportunities … They’re very well coached.”
Australia are top of Group B while India go into the second round of games in last place after Uzbekistan and Syria played out a 0-0 draw to earn a point each.
In Group A, China nearly came away with a win over Asian Cup debutants Tajikistan after Chenjie Zhu’s late bullet header went in but the goal was ruled out by VAR and the match ended 0-0.
(Reporting by Rohith Nair in Qatar; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Ken Ferris)