India were eliminated from the AFC Under-16 Championship following a 3-0 defeat against Iran in their third and final Group A encounter in Margao on Wednesday. This result now means that the four semi-finalists of the AFC Under-16 Championship will all qualify for the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, due to be hosted by India next year.
India made two strategic changes in their starting lineup for this must-win encounter, opting to start with Ninthoinganba and Lalengmawia in midfield in place of Aniket Jadhav and Aman Chetri, who had given India a 2-0 lead with one goal apiece in their previous group match against Saudi Arabia. Their intent in the first half was to stay deep in their half and for the first eight minutes of the match, they were able to keep the Iran side at bay. In the ninth minute, wing-back Ahmad Reza Jalali's cross from the left was met by centre-back Taha Shariati inside the Indian penalty box, but he was unable to direct his shot towards goal.
India created an opening of their own in the 16th minute, when a speedy run from the left by Komal Thatal saw him create a sharp angle to shoot, but he couldn't do enough to beat goalkeeper Ali Gholamzadeh. Iran's persistence paid off in the 23rd minute, when Mohammed Ghaderi worked a pass through to Allahyar Sayyad and then sped diagonally into the Indian penalty box to receive Sayyad's return ball and shot the ball into the top corner of Dheeraj Singh's net.
Iran continued to press forward, and in the 32nd minute Lalengmawia tripped Ghaderi in a position not too far from the Indian goal, but Mohammad Sharifi's free-kick was deflected for a corner off the Indian wall. Off the action that ensued, Amir Khodamoradi took a shot from within the six-yard box, but it was parried away by Dheeraj, and Ghaderi's shot came off Dheeraj's near post. India were able to manufacture another constructive move when Amarjit Singh slipped the ball through for Komal, but his space was closed down quickly by the Iran defence.
India made an expected change, with Aniket Jadhav coming on to add to the attacking firepower at the expense of right-back Mohammad Rakip, with Boris Singh slotting into the position vacated by Rakip. India would soon find themselves reduced to 10 men as Boris -- who was cautioned in the closing stages of the first half -- was shown a second yellow card in the 55th minute for pulling Ghaderi down just outside the Indian penalty box. Dheeraj palmed away the resultant free kick taken by Sharifi. Dheeraj would then pull off three saves in the span of seven minutes, first off Ghaderi in the 59th and the 65th minute and then denying Khodamoradi a minute later.
India made their second change by replacing Mohammad Sarif with Narender, and the latter nudged Ghaderi inside the box in the 81st minute, resulting in the team conceding their third penalty in as many matches. Dheeraj, who had saved the kicks from the spot against both United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, was sent the wrong way by Sharifi to double Iran's lead.
Dheeraj and Sharifi came face-to-face again in the first minute of injury time, following a clumsy tackle inside the defensive third on Sayyad by Aniket. For the second successive time, Sharifi would send Dheeraj the other way, capping off a professional performance by the 2008 champions.
This was India's seventh appearance at the AFC Under-16 championship, and their best finish remains making the quarterfinals in 2002.