The Indian football team pipped Vanuatu in a tight battle to book their place in the final of the Hero Intercontinental Cup 2023 with a game to spare. Sunil Chhetri came in clutch in the 80th minute to secure a 1-0 victory over the Oceania side at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar on Monday.

Indian head coach, Igor Stimac, made several changes in the first XI, providing others with an opportunity, and handed Nandhakumar Sekar his senior India team debut. Despite the changes in the lineup, the Blue Tigers didn't hold back and started attacking the opponent from the very first minute.

The debutant Sekar had a couple of early opportunities in the opening 15 minutes to etch his name in the history books by scoring a goal in his first match, but he couldn't capitalize on them.

The best goal-scoring opportunity for India, and also for Sekar, came in the 34th minute when his clubmate Naorem Mahesh Singh played a sumptuous through ball towards the goal. However, Sekar's effort went wide of the mark.

The Blue Tigers maintained their pressure but couldn't find the desired opening goal, resulting in a 0-0 scoreline at halftime.

The second half saw Mahesh and Sekar swapping wings, maintaining India's continuous pressure on the opponent's defence in search of the opening goal. Mahesh, with his precise crosses, consistently troubled the Vanuatu defence. In the 60th minute, he delivered a fierce cross from the left flank, which both the Vanuatu goalkeeper and defence misjudged, resulting in the ball falling directly to Chhetri. However, he narrowly missed his header.

Stimac introduced attacking changes, bringing Anirudh Thapa, Sahal Abdul Samad, and Lallianzuala Chhangte off the bench, thereby intensifying India's offensive threats.

Moments later, Thapa unleashed a powerful shot that was headed away for a corner. From the resulting corner, Mahesh attempted another left-footed shot. Finally, in the 80th minute, India broke the deadlock through their captain. Subhasish Bose embarked on a marauding overlap run and delivered a delightful cross to Chhetri, who received it and unleashed a powerful volley that rattled the roof of the net.

In the earlier fixture of the day, Mongolia held Lebanon to a 0-0 draw, keeping their chances open to qualify for the final.

With this victory, India secures a place in the final of the Hero Intercontinental Cup for the second time, having earned six points from two games. They will face Lebanon in the final game of the round-robin phase on June 15, while Mongolia will square off against Vanuatu in an early kick-off on the same day.