Majestic Chhetri propels India into final

India 3 (Syed Rahim Nabi – 25th; Sunil Chhetri – penalty – 68th and 91st) beat Maldives 1 (Shamweel Qasim – 59th)

One-two-three-four. The count goes on. Let it. Sunil Chhetri spearheaded India’s march into the SAFF Championship final scoring two goals and turning the match on its head at a moment when it was just threatening to get derailed. Great players perform when the team needs them; Sunil, at least does. Back home, he surely must be thinking about a new trophy cabinet after bagging his fourth consecutive Man-of-the-Match award.

Riding on a brace from Chhetri, India defeated Maldives 3-1 at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. Besides Chhetri, Rahim Nabi had opened the account for India while Shamweel Qasim scored the consolation goal for Maldives. For Maldives, Mohamed Umair was red-carded in injury time.

Early misses sometimes spice up the match. Even before most of the spectators hadn’t even dusted their chairs, despite an yawning net welcoming Jeje Lalpeklua with open hands, the highest Indian scorer of the last edition addressed his tap over the post. One remembered Maldives Coach Istvan Bela Urbanyi’s statement: “The kick-off will tell us as to who’s better.”

12 minutes later, Jeje tried to make the ball and the net but his header was acrobatically saved by rival goalkeeper Imran Mohammed. Rahim Nabi, eventually played the mediator in making the pair meet in the 25th minute when he followed and volleyed in Clifford Miranda’s free-kick.

India were playing all over the majestic Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium by then. What was supposed to be “the match of the tournament,” was turning out to be totally one-sided. Sunil Chhetri fell back, caught hold of the loose balls and spun webs around the rival defence.

In sharp contrast, Maldives’ stalwart Ali Ashfaq limped all throughout and even went back to the dressing room midway in the first half only to come back within five minutes.

Changing over as the lights were switched on, India further tried to lit up proceedings. Clifford’s miss from close proved costly as Maldives striker Shamweel Qasim blasted home a pile-driver in the 59thminute to close – a strike after which Urbanyi just couldn’t control himself – crossing the fourth official’s bench and almost into the Team India Technical Area to celebrate.

But the joy didn’t last for long. Chhetri who was tripped inside the box by Aasd Ghani gleefully converted from the spot to put India back in the lead. Chhetri, then put jewel Raja in the clear who failed to tap into an open net immediately after coming onto the field. Perhaps, it affected Chhetri more than Jewel as in the 91st minute, he ran past the rival defence to slot it home and put it beyond doubt.

The December fog which had descended early into the Stadium on the Friday Night to witness the proceedings wasn’t disappointed at all.