Indian football team assistant coach Mahesh Gawli claimed that centre-back Anwar Ali will be a “top class defender” for the national team in the coming years after India beat Lebanon on penalties to reach the SAFF Championship 2023 final on Saturday.

Ali, paired alongside Mehtab Singh against Lebanon, starred for the Indian defence as they nullified the Lebanon attack before taking the game into penalties. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu saved two penalties in the tie breaker to help India reach their 13th final in the competition.

The 22-year-old was guilty of scoring an own goal in India’s 1-1 draw against Kuwait in the previous game, but the youngster made amends with a solid performance at the back against Lebanon. Former India national team defender Gawli was full of praise for Ali after the Blue Tigers registered a hard-fought win over Lebanon.

“Anwar Ali has a brilliant talent in him and he is the future star of the national team. He is very sensible, intelligent and good with both feet. He is agile and his confidence level is very high. He will be a top class defender in the future,” Gawli stated in the post-match press conference.

Ali stepped up to take the second spot kick for the Blue Tigers in the penalty shootout. The 22-year-old sent the keeper the wrong way as India converted all their spot kicks.

“Gurpreet penalty saves were very nice (in the tie breaker). That gave us confidence and for the other players who took the penalties (later on). I think Gurpreet was very good in goal,” Gawli stated.

Despite India going unbeaten in their previous two games against Lebanon in the Hero Intercontinental Cup, the side from the Middle East began the semi-final on a bright note. India grew into the game and carved plenty of chances, but could not breach the deadlock. Gawli, however, mentioned that his side could have won the game in regulation time had they taken their chances.

"In the first 15 minutes, we were a little sloppy. After that, I think we dominated the match. You see the intensity till the end of 120 minutes, it was the same. Credit to the boys, they played very well. We dominated them. I think if we had scored the goals (from the chances) we got, the score would've been 3-0 or 4-0," he mentioned.

He further said: “They had a plan. In the first 15 minutes, you could see they were very fast, very quick. They were going to the wings and they had a good plan. Those 15 minutes, we (were) a little hot-headed. But our boys controlled the game [after that], we came up and we slowly got our confidence back.”

India will take on Kuwait in the final on Tuesday as they look to win their ninth SAFF Championship title.