India beat hosts Maldives 3-1 in a must-win match to make it to the final of the SAFF Championship 2021 at the National Football Stadium in Male on Wednesday.
Manvir Singh (33rd minute) and captain Sunil Chhetri (62th, 71st) scored the goals for the Indian football team while Ali Ashfaq netted the only goal for the Maldives from the penalty spot at the stroke of half-time.
Incidentally, the two goals helped Sunil Chhetri go past the legendary Pele**,** UAE’s Ali Mabkhout -- both with 77 goals -- and Hussein Saeed (79) of Iraq to the sixth spot on the list of all-time leading goal scorers in men’s football.
Coming into its final group game of the competition, the Indian football team needed a win to make the final on Saturday.
The Indians, however, had a challenging start as the Maldives tried to control the tempo while India struggled to find ways to contain them. The centre-back pairing of Subhashish Bose and Rahul Bheke was slow to read the game and were wayward with their passes.
This resulted in some sloppy passing by the Indians and the Maldives football team capitalised with counterattacks. But on the two occasions that the hosts darted in, Ali Ashfaq failed to beat his marker as the chances went begging.
Later, Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri came close to giving his side the lead. Found on the other end of a free-kick, the 37-year-old Chhetri rose highest and nodded the ball goalwards. But the ball rattled against the crossbar.
Manvir Singh, however, handed India the lead soon after. Fed on by a through ball, the forward raced ahead with purpose before firing in a controlled shot that found the roof of the net.
India’s joy was short-lived as the Maldives came back into the match just ahead of the half-time whistle. Full-back Pritam Kotal committed a foul inside his penalty area which left the referee to point to the spot. And this time, Ali Ashfaq ensured he sent Indian goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu the wrong way to draw parity.
The Indian football players were the better side in the second half and made their presence left by creating goal-scoring opportunities. Though their playmaker Brandon Fernandes had to be taken off due to an injury, Sunil Chhetri was at hand and he restored the team’s lead.
This time, it was the two forwards who combined with Manvir Singh cushioning a ball from the deep onto Sunil Chhetri’s path who blasted it past goalkeeper Mohamed Faisal in the Maldivian goal.
Later, the Indian football team captain came up with a sublime header to put the result beyond any doubt.
Though India head coach Igor Stimac and centre-back Subhasish Bose received their marching orders deep into the match, the Indian football team held on to the result to seal a place in the SAFF Championship final.