King’s Cup: Blue Tigers’ winning streak ends as Iraq win 5-4 on penalties

India Vs Iraq

India came within just 11 minutes of achieving a remarkable upset victory against Iraq in the King’s Cup semifinal held at Chiang Mai’s 700th Anniversary Stadium. Despite having won three tournaments this year, defeating the 70th-ranked Iraq would have been their most significant achievement in recent times. However, the script took an unexpected turn.

Against all odds, India managed to secure a 2-1 lead. Yet, in the 79th minute, India’s key central defender, Sandesh Jhingan, needlessly fouled Iraqi striker Aymen Hussein inside the box, resulting in a penalty that Hussein calmly converted, forcing the match into a penalty shootout.

India’s fortunes took a downturn as Brandon Fernandes missed the opening penalty, ultimately leading to Iraq’s 5-4 shootout victory and advancement to the final of the invitational knockout tournament.

Although the match result held relatively little significance, Coach Igor Stimac’s primary objective was to prepare his team for upcoming challenges. India is set to participate in the Asian qualifiers for the 2026 FIFA World Cup in November, with their focus firmly set on the crucial AFC Asian Cup in January, their most significant tournament on the horizon. Stimac was likely satisfied with what he witnessed on Thursday.

Despite missing key players like Sunil Chhetri and Lallianzuala Chhangte, India displayed both offensive and defensive prowess. Particularly impressive was their composed defending against a potent opposition attack, as well as their courage on the counterattack.

The opening goal resulted from a superb team counterattack. While Iraq dominated possession in the first 15 minutes, India remained proactive, pressing to force errors. In the 17th minute, they seized possession and initiated a counterattack, with the nimble-footed Sahal Abdul Samad delivering an exquisite through ball to 24-year-old Mahesh Singh.

Mahesh expertly evaded the offside trap, shifting from the right flank to the left, and calmly slotted the ball into the net at the near post, leaving the goalkeeper with no chance.

Although Iraq appeared increasingly comfortable, it seemed just a matter of time before they would take the lead. However, India’s resolute defense held firm, frustrating Iraq. Growing frustrated, Iraq’s coach, Jesus Casas, made three attacking substitutions, including former Manchester United prospect Zidane Iqbal, now with Dutch top-division side FC Utrecht.

Iraq adopted a more direct style, delivering crosses into the box to exploit their physicality advantage. Yet, India surprised once more, securing a second lead in the match through an error by Iraq’s goalkeeper, Jalal Hasan.

In the 51st minute, a slip by Hussein gave India possession in the opposition half. Sahal found Manvir Singh on the right flank, who then passed to overlapping left-back Akash Mishra. While attempting to cross into the box, Mishra’s delivery bounced off Hasan’s hand and into the net, providing India with an unexpected advantage.