Captain Sunil Chhetri was the saviour again as the Indian men’s football team recorded their first win at the 2021 SAFF Championship, defeating Nepal 1-0 in Male, Maldives on Sunday to reignite their hopes of reaching the final.
India had to dig deep to beat their organised neighbours who defended well in numbers throughout the evening. Chhetri missed a few chances on the night but eventually broke the deadlock eight minutes from time to give India all three points.
India ,who made four changes to the line-up, adopted a different approach as coach Igor Stimac paired Chhetri up top with Manvir Singh who had earlier been playing out wide. Mohammad Yasir played on the right-hand side as India began the game bossing possession.
Nepal were well drilled and didn’t concede too many chances in the first half despite almost never having the ball. However, a lapse in concentration almost cost them in 33rd minute when Chhetri missed from six yards with the goal at his mercy.
The Nepal defenders were caught on their heels as they allowed a cross from the right to reach Chhetri who himself was a bit surprised that the ball got to him.
The Indian captain then almost fed Manvir in the 44th minute but the ATK Mohun Bagan striker’s touch let him down.
India began the second half with a much better tempo and started causing Nepal a few more problems. Nepal goalkeeper Kiran Kumar Limbu was called into action in the 57th minute when an inch-perfect cross from Yasir Mohammad from the left found Manvir inside the box. His header from point-blank range was superbly parried away by Limbu to keep Nepal level.
Stimac made changes as India chased a winner and they almost found one in the 77th minute but Chhetri missed his header and Subhasish Bose who attacked the loose ball headed it straight to Limbu in the Nepal goal.
Chhetri then missed a free header from a corner three minutes later. But just when it seemed that it would be a frustrating evening for the captain and his team, Chhetri displayed his poacher’s instinct as he poked home a well-directed header from Farukh Choudhary in the 82nd minute to break Nepal’s resistance and give India the lead.
Nepal responded well and went close with Anjan Bista in the 86th minute as his shot flew just wide of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s goal. India who were solid at the back all along, saw off a late Nepal fightback to claim the all-important points.
India now face Maldives on Wednesday and need to win the match to progress to the final. Any other result would see the Blue Tigers get eliminated.