Talismanic captain Sunil Chhetri scored in his milestone appearance but India lost 1-3 to higher-ranked Curacao in their opening match of the King's Cup football tournament in Igor Stimac's first game in charge, in Burirasm, Thailand, on Wednesday.
Chhetri, who became the most capped India player by surpassing Bhaichung Bhutia's 107 international matches, scored the lone goal for his side in the 31st minute from a spot-kick for his 69th goal, though it did not make any difference to the result of the match.
The 82nd-ranked Caribbean island nation, which has two players plying their trade in the English Premier League and others in European leagues, scored thrice in the space of 18 minutes, through Roly Bonevacia (16th minunte), Elson Hooi (18th) and Leandro Bacuna (33rd).
A sloppy first half, in which India -- ranked 101 -- defended and attacked poorly, saw the team trailing 1-3 at the breather. The new defensive set up -- with Rahul Bheke coming in as central defender – looked out of sorts, lacking anticipation and communication.
India produced improved football in the second 45 minute period, played mostly under rain, but could not score another goal.
Stimac's charges had at least four chances in the second half, two coming to the 34-year-old Chhetri, whose first attempt hit the upright and the other -- another free header -- sailing over the bar.
Though high-profile Stimac, a World Cup bronze medallist and former Croatia manager, began his stint as India coach on a losing note, there were positives to be taken from the match against a more technically superior side.
The Croatian gaffer gave international debuts to as many as five players, including Under-17 World Cup captain Amarjit Singh, and the Indian side played possession football and mostly through ground passes.
Curacao dominated the first half but, surprisingly, India had more possession with 53 per cent as against 47. The second half was an even contest with India threatening to score several times and they completely dominated the final 15 minutes though another goal eluded them in the end.
"Conceding three goals in the first half against a technically superior team was always going to be difficult to come back. It's a new team with a lot of new players coming in," Chhetri said after the match.
"We made mistakes, especially in the first half. We are going to go to the drawing board and see what we did wrong. We hope to recover fast for the third-place match and do better," he added.
India plays the losing team of the match between Thailand and Vietnam in the third-place play-off on Friday.