Sunil Chhetri’s brace earns India a spot 2021 SAFF Championship final
Led by talisman Sunil Chhetri, India came back strong in the second half to beat Maldives 3-1 and secured their spot in the final of 2021 SAFF Championship. The Blue Tigers took the lead through Manvir Singh but the hosts equalised after a penalty from Ali Ashfaq, right before half-time to force a shift in momentum. The Blue Tigers, however, had other intentions. They came out all guns blazing and scored two goals in the span of ten minutes through captain Chhetri to book their ticket to the final.
The Floodlights were sparkling and the wind was gushing as the two teams walked out on the Maldives National Football Stadium in Male with a sea of red all around them. And that too, a sea with waves as big as high tides. The Stadium was reverberating, and it was a perfect setting for a match that was do-or-die for both the teams.
The referee blew his whistle and after the first five minutes which turned out to be cagey, the Indian side began to assert themselves in possession. Maldives kept hitting them on the counter and created some decent chances at the other end. Majority of India’s attacks came from the right and center areas.
India came closest to a goal in the 26th minute, when Brandon Fernandes swung the ball in from ten yards outside the box on the right flank, which was met by Chhetri’s head and hit the crossbar.
Seven minutes later, Brandon Fernandes slipped a through ball in between the Maldivian defense for Manvir Singh to swing his boot and smash it into the roof of the goalpost. The scoreboard read 1-0, much to the delight of Indian fans and coach Igor Stimac, who jumped up in jubilation.
Maldives’ fans, just like their players, didn’t back down. They kept knocking on the door and in the 44th minute, a foul by Pritam Kotal on Hamza Mohamed inside the box awarded them a penalty.
The stalwart Ashfaq set the ball on the penalty area and measured his run. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu went to his right, deceiving him, Ali Ashfaq slapped the ball to his left, prompting a roar among the home fans.
The momentum seemed to have shifted. Luckily for India the goal was soon followed by the half-time whistle. A draw would have been enough for Maldives to qualify into the final. Whereas for India, nothing less than a victory would suffice.
India didn’t hold themselves back in the second half. There was a sense of urgency in the intent of the players. It was this urgency which eventually paid dividends to the Blue Tigers.
In the 62nd minute, Lalengmawia snatched the ball in the midfield and floated it inside the box towards Manvir, who chested it into the path of Chhetri. The captain latched on the half-volley and slotted it home to put India back in the driving seat.
Nine minutes later, in the 71st minute, Kotal delivered a pin point ball on the edge of the box for Chhetri to head it into the top right corner. The task at hand now was to protect the two-goal lead. Stimac subbed in Glan Martins, Anirudh Thapa and Rahim Ali in place of Manvir Singh, Sunil Chhetri and Mohammad Yasir.
Maldives pushed hard but India did well to keep them relatively quiet by forcing them inside their own half. The referee blew the final whistle and now, all one could hear was a small section of Indian fans chanting for their team. Those fans will hope for a similar result when
India take on Nepal in their 12th SAFF Championship final.