Ahmedabad, July 17: Already out of reckoning for a berth in the final, India produced their best performance of the tournament to play out a 1-1 draw against Syria in the final league match of the Intercontinental Cup football tournament in Ahmedabad on Tuesday (July 16).
The 18-year-old central defender Narender Gahlot, playing in his second international match, gave India the lead in the 52nd minute but Syria restored parity in the 78th minute through Firas Al Khatib at the EKA Stadium.
India, who had lost 2-4 against Tajikistan and 2-5 against North Korea, collected their first points of the tournament though they ended at the bottom of the table with just one point.
More importantly, India spoilt Syria's hopes of making it to the finals. The West Asian side, who needed a win to qualify for the final, ended at third with four points from three matches.
Tajikistan and North Korea, who got six points each from three matches, will play in the summit clash on Saturday. India had won the inaugural tournament last year.
India, who had conceded nine goals in their earlier two matches, were solid in the defence against Syria with the back-four of Gahlot, Rahul Bheke, Pritam Kotal and Mandar Rao Desai producing a much improved performance.
Amarjit Singh and Sahal Samad were impressive in the middle of the park, just like in the earlier two matches. Captain Sunil Chhetri was, as usual, leading the charge for any Indian attack though he did not score for the first time in this tournament.
India could have won in front of the sizeable crowd had not Jerry Lalrinzuala made a clumsy challenge to an opponent three minutes after coming onto the field by replacing Mandar Rao Desai. Syria scored from the penalty to equalise.
After experimenting for two matches, India head coach Igor Stimac seemed to have picked the best eleven in his starting line-up though central defender Sandesh Jhingan was left out after he suffered a hamstring injury in the earlier match against North Korea. The starting eleven though had eight changes from the North Korea match.
To the credit of the Indians, the team maintained its shape throughout and did not give any clear scoring chance to their opponents who pressed really hard in the second half to win the match.
As early in the sixth minute, India could have taken the lead off a cross from nimble-footed Udanta Singh but Sahal and Lallianzuala Chhangte could not tap into the Syria net.
Syria had a chance in the 24th minute but India goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu dived to his left to deny Youssef Al Hamwi's header.
After a barren first half, India's goal came four minutes after resumption and Gahlot rose above everyone else to connect Anirudh Thapa's corner kick with a powerful header which beat the diving Syria goalkeeper to hit the back of the net.
Syria pressed hard with more men upfront but India were able to defend their citadel until Lalrinzuala, who came on to the field in the 74th minute, brought Ahmad Alahmad down for the referee to point to the dreaded spot.
Firas Al Khatib stepped up to send his spot kick to the right of diving Gurpreet to the stunning silence of the home supporters.
This was India's fifth match under Stimac's charge. India won just one (against Thailand in the King's Cup last month), drawn one and lost three.
The Croatian World Cupper and former head coach had said that Intercontinental Cup was a preparatory tournament for the 2022 World Cup qualifiers starting in September.