A late goal by skipper Sunil Chhetri helped India defeat Afghanistan 2-1 in the summit clash of the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) cup in Thiruvanathapuram on Sunday. The Men in Blue lifted their seventh SAFF title in the process and also avenged their defeat in 2014 against the same opposition. A combined team effort from the Indian team managed to cancel out Zubayr Amiri’s opener with goals from Jeje Lalpekhlua (72′) and Chhetri (101′). This was also India’s first major victory under new coach Stephen Constantine who was also under fire for his team’s dismal performance in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers where they lost 5 out of 6 matches.
First half: Jeje narrowly misses an early goal
India, who are ranked 166th according to the latest FIFA rankings were up against a higher ranked Afghan team (150) but a better record at the SAFF cup helped the Sunil Chhetri-led team start as favourites. They were playing their 10th SAFF cup final out of 11 editions and were more experienced in situations like these. However, the visitors got off to an aggressive start with Mustafa Zazai finding an early shot in the 7th minute but was denied by Indian keeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who dived full-length to his right. He made another save in the 11th minute, this time it was the Afghan captain Faysal Shayesteh.
India’s best chance of the first half came in the 14th minute. Jeje played the ball forward to Holicharan Nazary and the latter sent in a cross which struck Zubayr Amiri’s legs and headed towards the goal. The Afghan goalkeeper managed to put that away and Jeje headed the ball on the rebound but it bounced off the woodwork. Sunil Chhetri could not take advantage of the ball that was back into play as it was cleared by an Afghan defender.
Sunil Chhetri had another chance to put his side ahead in the game when Eugeneson Lyngdoh floated in a neat pass and the skipper chested the ball and fired in a left-footer but was kept away by the goalkeeper. no goals were scored in the first half.
Second half: Jeje scores to push the game into extra-time
India dominated the fist 15 minutes of the second half as they made repeated attempts at the Afghan goal. They almost broke the deadlock in the 56th minute when Sunil Chhetri found Jeje at a comfortable scoring position. Jeje caught the Afghan keeper off guard and chipped the ball past him but the ball hit the crossbar once again, thus leaving the Indian forward frustrated.
Despite such dominance from the Indian team, it was Afghanistan who drew first blood in the 69th minute. Faysal managed to get the ball past Arnab Mondal and found an unmarked Zubayr Amiri in front of the net. The latter had no trouble in putting the ball past Gurpreet Singh Sandhu to take Afghanistan 1-0 ahead in the game. India did not take long to equalize as Jeje Lalpekhlua found the back of the net, responding to Holicharan Nazary’s cross and a headed assist from Sunil Chhetri.
India looked to take the game away towards the fag end of the game when Narayan Das fired in a long range shot but was gloved away by the opponent keeper in the 84th minute. A couple of minutes later, India won a free-kick and skipper Sunil Chhetri brilliantly executed a right-footed effort but was denied yet again.
Sunil Chhetri delivers the winning goal in extra-time:
Sunil Chhetri was on top of his game on Sunday evening and he proved to be lethal for his opponents throughout the match. In the 101st minute, he received a long pass and the Indian skipper got past two Afghan defenders and managed to send the ball past the keeper with a right-footed sliding shot despite losing his balance. The ball rolled into the goal slowly, thus sending the entire crowd into a frenzy and rounding off a dramatic victory for the Indians.