India captain Sunil Chhetri was ecstatic with the fight shown by his team after a thrilling 2-1 win against Afghanistan in Kolkata at the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers match on Saturday.

Chhetri scored a late, stunning free kick to put his side ahead but it was immediately cancelled out by an Afghanistan equaliser. But substitute Sahal Abdul Samad popped with an even later goal, set up by Ashique Kuruniyan.

Football, ACQ 2023, India vs Afghanistan as it happened: Chhetri, Sahal score late in dramatic win

Chhetri’s free kick, Sahal’s winner & more: Reactions to India’s thrilling win against Afghanistan

“Almost thought we will share the points but the boys, they did it,” Chhetri told broadcasters Star Sports after the match.

“Sahal kept his composure. The build up was good for the last goal. It wasn’t easy, the changes were made and all of them pay the dividends and it’s very satisfying when you almost thought you are going to share the points and to get three points, which is so so crucial in this in this in this group. Really happy with this performance,” Chhetri said.

Chhetri, who completes another year in Indian football this weekend, was asked how this team compares to the ones he has played over the years.

“I’ve been really blessed to play with a lot of a lot of groups. This one is a very aware one. A group which knows exactly what their strengths and weaknesses are, a group that works really hard. Slowly and steadily, everyone’s ticking their places. It’s really good to be in the midst of all the boys here. You learn so much for many of them. I’m so happy for myself, for the team, for the fans here. It was indeed a very special day,” Chhetri said.

Chhetri was asked if there is no burden of history on this team.

“I mean, the boys are more aware of what they’re capable of. I think they don’t take too much baggage on them, which is a good thing. The fact that they are young and they really want to express themselves. They don’t really read too much about what has happened before, the kind of pressure. You see how Sahal kept his composure. You could see what Udanata did when he came on, you can see Jeakson and Suresh did. So this team is really confident. Not that we don’t want to make mistakes. We will but we will bounce back and learn again,” the India captain said.

India are now on the verge of meeting their objective of qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup for back-to-back editions for the first time. And for Chhetri, that has to be bare minimum for India.

“We already spoke about it, the bare minimum target for us to qualify for the Asia Cup so that we can go and rub our shoulders with the best in Asia. I think I’m not trying to be too harsh on ourselves but we need to be playing Asia Cup every addition, so that we can assess as to how much we’re improving and also get an opportunity to play the best of Asian teams,” the 37-year-old added.

Asked about his own special free kick, and how does it time and again, Chhetri underplayed it.

“I’m blessed to be a part of a team which works really hard. It’s not me, it’s the whole team. We work really really hard, everyone chips in. You can say I think picked the cherry at the end of the of the entire cake that’s it. We all work, we all try to chop in and I’m not trying to be modest. I’ve got a specific role, everyone has a specific role, we all gel and we try to be in sync and and become a better team. That’s the whole target. It’s a young side, all the places are still up for grabs. We will work really hard and and be a strong team,” he said.

For coach Igor Stimac, the performance on the night signified the fight he wants to see from his young side.

“We are called Blue Tigers. Today we played like Blue Tigers. We need to keep being tigers on the pitch. That’s the way we are heading to. Going out, enjoying the football and fighting for your country with pride and honour,” he said in the press conference after the match.

Stimac also used this chance to hit back at criticism he has been receiving in his time as the India coach. When asked about the character shown by the team, the Croatian said such transformation cannot happen overnight.

“In the last few years I’m getting tired to explain to everyone that good football doesn’t come overnight. It is a process that will take time. We have youngsters that can make us proud but we must be patient. We need to undertake that process of work in football is a lengthy process.

“Knowledge of football in India is so low. You can’t criticize points you don’t understand. I just ask for patience from the fans, nothing else,” he added.