The Sree Kanteerava Stadium, like it so often has in the years recently gone by, was the scene of a gritty Indian football triumph. This time, it wasn’t the hometown club, Bengaluru FC, giving the fans something to cheer about but the Blue Tigers who notched up a crucial AFC Asian Cup qualifying win over Kyrgyzstan.
The protagonist was a different matter altogether and a familiar one at that. If Sunil Chhetri’s goal against Myanmar was Mastercard class, then this was truly priceless.
In the game against Myanmar, Chhetri started the move off 60 yards from goal before slamming it past the keeper off an Udanta Singh pass. Kyrgyzstan were much more focused on shutting him down, with two to three men on the Indian skipper at all times, forcing the home team’s play to go through other channels.
Here, he didn’t have the pace of injured Udanta or the substituted Jackichand Singh to help him stretch the play so Chhetri took matters into his own hands. Kyrgyzstan, building up for one of their numerous attacks, had an innocuous loss of ball possession just outside the opposition box. Innocuous, or so it would seem.
One second had passed after 68 minutes had been completed, when Chhetri picked up the ball approximately 75 to 80 yards from the Kyrgyz goal. With his back to the goal, he swivelled and let the ball go past him before stroking it forward.
Barely two more seconds had passed before a Kyrgyz player tried to take him out rather cynically, lunging forward expecting to crash into the man with the yellow armband only for Chhetri to stroke the ball forward and a little jump ensured that he had avoided the first challenge.
At this point, it seemed like he had overhit the ball by a tiny fraction as the next challenge came flying in on 68:04 as the alarm bells had started ringing in the Kyrgyz camp. This one too was evaded, as a slight nudge from Chhetri and another subsequent jump saw him and the ball go in separate directions before he met up with the ball near half-way line.
The Kyrgyz, at this point, were going full throttle at his legs as a third tackle almost did take him out and for a nanosecond, it did feel like the Indian captain would lose his balance but he remained upright before composing himself and passing it to Jeje Lalpekhlua, playing on the shoulder of the last defender, on the right.
Post dodging three fierce sliding tackles, a path had opened up for India and its captain on 68:06 as the whole stadium held its breath in anticipation of what was to follow.
On 68:09, a slide-rule pass from Jeje would have been what conventional wisdom had dictated the Mizo striker to take as the logical next step. The man from Hnahthial, has seen a lot of national team responsibility fall on his shoulders in the last 24 months, but he was having none of that ‘wisdom’ as he nonchalantly dinked it over his marker’s shoulder.
Ten seconds after picking the ball in his own half, Chhetri was there as the ball looped in the air, falling for what seemed like an eternity with the Secunderabad-born sniper watching the dip of the ball as it was only him and Matiash in the final duel.
Eleventh second, and there was only ever going to be one winner. The ball was where it belonged, in the far corner of the net. With Matiash scrambling, the most important right foot in all of India summoned up all the rotational torque that it needed to do what it has done for the past 12 years – to keep them relevant and to keep em’ fighting.