India eke out a narrow win to enter final

The men in blue alternated from brilliant to mediocre and sneaked out a 3-2 win over Maldives to enter the finals of the SAFF Suzuki Cup football championship at the Greenfield stadium here on Thursday.

Jeje Lalpekhlua's brace helped India claw out a 3-2 victory over Maldives.   -  PTI

The men in blue alternated from brilliant to mediocre and sneaked out a 3-2 win over Maldives to enter the finals of the SAFF Suzuki Cup football championship at the Greenfield stadium here on Thursday.

Jeje Lalpekhlua scored a brace (34th and 65th) after captain Sunil Chhetri nodded in the opening goal in the 24th minute. However, two brain freezes by the Indian defence enabled Maldives to pull two goals back through Nashid Ahmed (45th) and Ali Amdhan (75th).

Coach Stephen Constantine made three changes from the team that won against Nepal. Jeje teamed up with Chhetri upfront while defender Arnab and Gurpreet Singh came in for Khongjee and Subrata Paul respectively.

Maldives too made five changes in the squad that lost to Afghanistan in the last match. Maldives started the match with a flourish with Indian goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh bringing off a nice save to deny Fasir Ali in the fifth minute. Indians shrugged off their tentativeness and played with more freedom in midfield. Nazary, who played behind Chhetri and Jeje, was again the influential player in the midfield. With Bikash Jairu using the width on the left, Indians wrested control of the match. Arnab Mondal had a goal disallowed in the 12th minute when he found the net from close as the ball was relayed to him from the left flank.

However, India didn’t slacken the pace and the sustained pressure saw them breach the Maldives defence in the 24th minute with Sunil Chhetri heading in a cross from Halicharan Narzary. The visitors had a close shave in the 29th minute when a Pritam Mondal’s cross from left saw Chhetri rifle in a shot which was blocked by a defender. The rebound came to Jeje whose shot was punched away for a corner by the goalkeeper.

India went ahead in the 33rd minute when Nazary chipped over the defence to send Jeje clear and the striker had all the time in world to bury the ball into the far corner of the net. The Maldives goalkeeper brought out a smart save to deny Chhetri in the 38th minute. India paid the price for sloppiness as Maldives pulled one back in the 45th minute through Nashid Ahmed, who cashed on to a poor clearance to score from close range.

India’s domination in the second half was underlined when Chhettri found Jeje inside the box and striker outfoxed two defenders to score his second goal in the 65th minute. Maldives reduced the margin against the run of play when Amdhan Ali headed in a corner in the 75th minute. The goal galvanised the Maldives, who pressed hard for the equaliser. However, Indians did well to hold on to the ball a little longer and wrested back control. Chhagate was denied by goalkeeper Mohammed Imran in the dying moments of the game.

The result:

India 3 (Sunil Chhetri 24, Jeje 34, 65) bt Maldives 2 (Nahid Ahmed 45, Ali Amdhan 75).