A severely-fatigued and under-prepared Indian team got a rude reality check with hosts China out-muscling them 1-5 in an opening group league encounter of the Asian Games football competition here on Tuesday.
Giao Tianyi (17th min), Dai Weijun (51st min), Tao Qianglong (72nd and 75th minute) and Hao Fang (90+2) scored for the hosts, while Rahul K.P.'s (45+1 minute) equaliser from an acute angle was possibly the best strike of the match.
It was heartening to see a third-string team holding the title contenders on an even keel during the first 45 minutes, which saw Indian custodian Gurmeet Singh Chahal valiantly save a spot-kick taken by rival captain Zhu Chenjie.
India now need to beat Bangladesh and Myanmar in their remaining two games to qualify for the second round. Myanmar beat Bangladesh 4-2 in another game in this group.
Having reached the Games Village late on Monday evening, the third-string Indian team, with not even four specialist defenders in their ranks, didn't have enough coordination amongst themselves. They looked jet-lagged, not rested enough and there was no way that there could have been a miracle.
The gulf in class and quality was evident and most of the Chinese attacks happened from India's wide left (China's right flank) side, which was being manned by Sumit Rathi. It became a free ride for the Chinese attackers.
Also, the humidity and lack of training time had its effect as the Indians didn't have the legs to last beyond the first hour. And, once the second goal was scored due to Sandesh Jhingan's poor anticipation, the floodgates opened. Jhingan was also responsible for another goal when he had a brain fade and wanted to dribble his team past the danger in his own penalty box and committed harakiri.
A lot of players suffered from cramps due to humidity and, obviously, not having enough time to warm up.
Skipper Sunil Chhetri was on the pitch for 85 minutes and, save a pile driver that sailed way over the horizontal, he had precious little to do with a literally non-existent feeder line, which concentrated on creating a melee in the defensive third to thwart the wave of Chinese attack.
The only silver lining was the goal by Rahul K.P., the former U-17 World Cupper, who was freed on the wide right by Abdul Rabeeh and the Kerala Blasters player sprinted and smashed it in from near zero degrees, much to the awe of a capacity home crowd. Indians went into the break 1-1 but the wheels came off in the second half, and it was more due to fatigue.
Most of these players are not even first-choice substitutes for their respective ISL clubs and it was evident that match fitness was a big issue. But then, their lack of quality can't be blamed on them but on the custodians of Indian football including Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL) putting a spanner in AIFF's efforts of conjuring the best bunch for the continental showpiece, showing the FIFA rule book.