An injury time goal by Climax Lawrence saw a patchy India scrap past minnows Afghanistan in their opening Group A match of the AFC Challenge Cup in Hyderabad on Wednesday.
Climax saved the day for India scoring in the 92nd minute after being fed by substitute Clifford Miranda to the relief of the Indian camp and handful of spectators who cheered every move of their home team at the floodlit Gachibowli stadium.
India, however, largely failed to live up to pre-tournament hype and they have to dish out a much improved performance in their two remaining matches -- against Tajikistan and Turkmenistan to harbour hopes of winning the eight-nation tournament and qualify for 2011 Asian Cup after 24 years.
India completely dominated the first 25 minutes having most of the ball possession and making several attacks. It seemed for a while that Bob Houghton's charges would walk away with full points without much resistance from their opponents, the lowest ranked side in the tournament at 181st in latest FIFA charts, but the fight by the players from the war-ravaged country left the Indians surprised as well as red-faced.
The Afghans, who had two players who their ply trade in lower division clubs in Germany in their ranks, almost turned the tables towards the breather, getting two fine chances with the hosts surviving thanks to Subrata Paul's brilliant goal-keeping.
While the Indians failed to produce the finishing move even while having more attacks, the Afghans employed tight man marking inside their own half and Indian captain Baichung Bhutia was given little space by Djelaluddin Shrityar, one of the two Afghan players who play in Germany.
India had at least three attempts at rival goal. First in the fifth minute, it was captain Baichung whose header beat the goalkeeper but missed the target by inches.
Next, in the 10th minute, NP Pradeep could not do more than poke his toe off a Baichung pass which ballooned over the head of an onrushing Afghan goalkeeper Shamsuddin Amiri. A few seconds later, home team striker Sunil Chhetri's shot from outside the box landed straight to goalkeeper.
Chhetri again failed to connect a Climax Lawrence high cross from near the right touchline in the 19th minute.
Four minutes later, a looping shot by Bungo Singh, who was fielded in place of injured Steven Dias, was fisted away in time by a busy Afghan goalkeeper Shamsuddin.
Baichung's back-heel attempt from the resultant corner, after being fed by defender Anwar Ali, was again blocked by the rival goalkeeper.
The Afghans though slowly found their feet and started finding space in the Indian half with their strikers Abdul Saboor and Qadami Hafizullah looking dangerous and their midfielders feeding them well.
In the 26th minute, the home supporters were nearly stunned with Afghan striker Hafizullah sending a left footer towards the Indian goal but Subrata Paul was up to his task punching away in time diving high on his right.
In the 42nd minute, India were saved from conceding the lead, and following a move from the right flank Hafizullah's low drive but Paul was able to lay his hands on and the ball landed at the back of the net after one bounce.
Image: India captain Bhaichung Bhutia in action against Sharityar Djelaluddin of Afghanistan in the AFC Challenge Cup in Hyderabad on Wednesday. Photograph: PTI