Sunil Chhetri was on the scoresheet again as Indian men’s football team clinched the 2021 SAFF Championship with a commanding 3-0 win over Nepal in the final in Male, Maldives on Saturday.
The strong second-half display gave Igor Stimac, who was not on the sidelines for the final because of a suspension, his first silverware as the Blue Tigers boss.
After a goalless first half, India took the game away from Nepal with two quick-fire goals just after the restart.
Indian captain Chhetri opened the scoring with a fine header from a Pritam Kotal cross in the 48th minute for his 80th international goal. Then, Suresh Singh Wangjam doubled the lead two minutes later as he slotted a Yasir Mohammad cutback into the bottom corner.
India had a few more chances to add to their lead in the second half as Nepal pushed ahead in search of their goal in the second half but failed to convert them. That would change in some style at the end of the match when substitute Sahal Abdul Samad danced his way through the Nepal defence to score a truly wonderful solo goal.
India had made a sticky start to the tournament with draws against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka but bounced back in style with wins over Nepal and Maldives before beating Nepal again in the final.
This is the Indian football team’s first title triumph under head coach Igor Stimac, who faced criticism in recent times for his side’s inability to win enough games.
However, when it mattered the most in this edition of the regional tournament, Stimac’s players delivered the results the team’s fans had been waiting for.
Stimac also became the third foreign coach after Jiri Pesek (1993) and Stephen Constantine (2015) to clinch the title with the Indian team.
Chhetri gave India the lead after he charged in to neatly head in a delivery from Pritam Kotal on the right flank, leaving the Nepalese goalkeeper with no chance to come to his team’s rescue.
Barely a minute after Chhetri’s opener, another attack by India caught Nepal completely off-guard as Suresh found the back of the net after Yasir Mohammad brilliantly cut it back for the mid-fielder.
Their tails up after two quick strikes, India pressed hard for more but could not add to the tally for a while before Sahal fond the back of the net with his solo effort.
Before Sahal’s strike, there was a chance for Manvir Singh in the 52nd minute after he was played through, but his left-footed effort was blocked.
In the 79th minute, there was great chance for Udanta Singh as he was in the clear to take a crack at goal but Rohit Chand came up with a fine block to deny the Indian winger.
It remained goalless at the break as both India and Nepal could not capitalise on the chances that came their way.
India could have gone ahead minutes before the half-time but the ball that was delivered from the right flank for Chhetri was not met with properly as the Indian captain’s his effort went wide.
However, India more than made up for that with their second-half display, much to Stimac’s delight.
India entered the game with the psychological advantage over the Himalayan country as historical or recent statistics cleared favoured Stimac’s side to lift the title yet again.
Having endured a topsy-turvy start to their campaign, India ended it in style against the first-time finalists.
The final was the 12th for India in 13 editions, showing the domination of the Blue Tigers in this regional tournament.
(With PTI inputs)