A draw that feels like a defeat. It may be an overused phrase after conceding a late goal, but there was no other appropriate way of describing India's 1-1 result against Kuwait on Tuesday.
Spoils were shared on paper on the night, but as a whole, India lost out on the top spot in the group by the slimmest of margins, and also their eight-match clean-sheet streak. After a frenetic 90 minutes full of crunching challenges, aggressiveness from both sides, hot heads and immense drama, the crossing line was within reach for India, until Anwar Ali's mistimed clearance looped into the net for an own goal. But Anwar did not concede the goal.
It's not Anwar, it's the country that conceded," captain Sunil Chhetri was quick to clarify. "It's an own goal. It can happen to anyone. We are professional enough not to talk about it. I hope the kid shrugs it off. We all have his back," he supported.
"Technical mistakes are something that we do not take too seriously. We just work on our effort. Sometimes I miss silly goals that I shouldn’t have. If somebody makes a silly challenge, then we get a penalty against us. It all happens in football. It's now in the past," Chhetri was quoted as saying by AIFF.
And the Kanteerava concurred with the skipper's words. The stadium resonated with the loud singing and positive reception of their Blue Tigers after the full-time whistle. Anwar, who had trod towards the west block with an apologetic feeling, could hold his head high and even afford a smile after hearing his name chanted by the loyal supporters.
Pats on his back and hugs from his teammates reminded him how fantastically and almost flawlessly he had performed that night, and that one moment cannot overshadow all that.
Anwar was everywhere in defence, complementing Sandesh Jhingan in a dominant fashion as he had done during the entire month. He was well-positioned, kept good spatial awareness and did not shy away from flying into challenges, just as head coach Igor Stimac expected him and every Blue Tiger to perform against an opponent like Kuwait.
"To a large extent, we could do exactly what we had trained for. They are not an easy side. This team can play, and we could see that. But we matched their energy, and for most of the time, I think we did well, "said Chhetri.
"But the feeling that comes to our mind is that of a loss because we conceded at the last moment," he added uneasily. "Clean sheet was one of our targets today, which went out of the window. All of us in the dressing room are a little bit disheartened about that. Now, it's the unbeaten run that we want to keep as long as possible."
India are unbeaten in all nine matches played in 2023. At home, the run stretches to almost four years, with the last defeat coming in Guwahati against Oman in September 2019 in the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers.
Amidst all the craziness, there was a silver lining of sorts as Chhetri hit a new milestone with his 92nd international goal. 23 of those have now come in the SAFF Championship, making him the joint top-scorer in the history of the competition alongside Maldives' Ali Ashfaq. For Chhetri, however, not goals but trophies matter the most.
"I don't think about these things. I'm not trying to be arrogant, but I don't take goals too seriously. Once when I'm done in a few years, we can talk about it with a nice burger and a beer," he laughed. "For now, I really appreciate the love that I get across the whole country, especially here as it is my home ground. I try my best to give whatever I have on the pitch," the skipper added.