Indian football team secured its best ever finish in the AFC U-23 Asian Cup Qualifiers by claiming the second spot in Group E as goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh made some spectacular saves to help the side win the shootout against Kyrgyz Republic 4-2 after regulation time ended goalless here. With the match ending in a stalemate, both sides finished the group on four points apiece with the same goal difference (zero) and equal number of goals scored in all the matches (2).
To decide who takes the second and third spots, respectively, in Group E, a penalty shootout was held, which India won 4-2.
Earlier, UAE beat Oman 2-0 to end as the toppers of Group E.
Top teams from each Group qualify directly for next year’s continental showpiece along with the best four second-placed teams across all Groups.
India now need to wait till the conclusion of other Group matches to know if they can qualify for their maiden AFC U-23 Asian Cup.
In the penalty shootout, Dheeraj started with a couple of spectacular saves while Rahul KP, Rohit Danu, Suresh Singh, and Rahim Ali scored from the spot.
Earlier in the match, Apuia tried to hurl the first attack in as early as the fifth minute but 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, but eventually Adilet Kanybekov neutralised his effort.
The central Asian outfit sprung into life three minutes later when 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 whose 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, but 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 at the lemon break.
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 Malpian referee Mohamed Javiz paid no attention to it.
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.
India’s pursuit for the winning goal could have come three minutes later, but Rahul’s fierce shot from 30 yards out came agonisingly close to breaching the indomitable Kyrgyz defence, only to have ricocheted off the post.
On the rebound, Vikram tried his luck but Erzhan jumped to his left to negate the danger.
At the other end, Kyrgyz broke away on a counter-attack, exploiting a mistake by the defender.
His backpass was anticipated by Sharshenbekov Arlen inside the box and he left it to an onrushing Abilov Ernaz, who snuck into the penalty box unmarked. Dheeraj, however, positioned himself perfectly to save it with his usual composure in the 85th minute.
With just minutes of regulation time left, Suresh lobbed a looping free-kick and Deepak Tangri fired it from close range, only to seen it saved by the opposition goalkeeper.