India SAFF champions again

Sunil Chhetri probably scored the most important goal of his career when his 101st minute strike snatched an unlikely win for India in the final of the SAFF Suzuki Cup Football tournament.

Players of Indian football team celebrate after beating Afghanistan in SAFF Suzuki Cup 2015 final.   -  PTI

The Indian skipper cashed on to a poor piece of defending by Afghanistan to squeeze the ball into net, past goalkeeper Azizi in the 11th minute of extra time. Indians then withstood a barrage of attacks from Afghanistan to lift the trophy for the seventh time and after a gap of four years.

There was drama when referee Kimuru Hiroyuki of Japan turned down Afghanistan’s appeal for a penalty for a handball inside the Indian box in the 115th minute. The loose ball came to Khaibar Amani whose shot rebounded off the far post as India survived. The protesting Afghan coach Petar Segrt was banished to the sidelines by the referee.

The Indians backed up by vociferous 35,000 fans, turned the tables on favourites Afghanistan. The young Indian team stood up admirably to the experienced Afghanistan side and were able to choke the free flowing style of their opponents. The young turks showed enough verve and keenness on the field to win ball and generally didn’t give many opportunities for Afghan midfielders to take control.

Like in the previous matches Indians used width to launch their attacks from both flanks. Holicharan on left and Jairu on the right created chances for Chettri and Jeji. After initial hesitancy, the breakthrough move for India came in the 15th minute when Jeje found Holicharan Narzary on the left the midfielder’s first timer rebounded off a defender. Afghan goalkeeper Azizi palmed it away and the rebound came to Jeje whose header rebounded into the play after hitting the post.

Holicharan induced another save from Azizi in the 17th minute. Norallah Amiri muffed a sitter for Afghanistan in the 20th minute. Pritam Kotal lost the ball to Zubayr Amiri who squared it to Norallah who shot out with only goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh to beat.

Azizi brought out a world class save to deny a sublime Chhetri who did well to chest down a pass and sneaked in a left footed shot at the Afghan goal. Azizi, tough blinded by two defenders, was alert enough to avert the danger. The Indian goal had a close shave when captain Faysal back heeled a cross arrowed in by Zubayr Amiri from the right flank. However, Gurpreet dived towards his left to prevent the danger.

The bar denied Jeje early in the second half. Jeje’s superb shot hit the bar over the advanced Azizi after being set in position by Chhetri. Indians swarmed the rival half and Holicharan Narzary goal-bound shot was deflected for a corner in the 62nd minute. Afghanistan got the goal much against run of play in the 70th minute.

Captain Faysal Shayesteh sent Zubayr Amiri clear with a through ball and the striker scored with a clinical finish. However, India equalised within two minutes when Jairu found Chhetri with a long ball. The Indian captain did well to control it and tapped it towards Jeje who guided the ball into the back of the net. Afghans pressed hard for the winner and Indian goal was in sufficient duress. Gurpreet made a mess of high ball and rebound came to Zubayr Amiri whose shot was cleared. Faysal was off target in the 82 minute for Afghanistan.

India weathered the storm and created two fine opportunities in the last five minutes. Azizi tipped over a wickedly curling ball from Narayan Das in the 85th minute and a Chhetri free kick was punched out by the goalkeeper Azizi in the 87th minute.

India fielded an unchanged team while Afghanistan made two changes from the team that played against Sri Lanka. Mustafa Zazai came in for Omad Popalzay and Zubyair Amiri for Khaibar Amani.

The result

India 2 (Jeje 72, Sunil Chhetri 101) bt Afghanistan 1 (Zubayr Amiri 70).