India ride captain-striker Sunil Chhetri brace to book SAFF C’ship


Final berth in Maldives

Male, Oct 14 (UNI) India played like champions and thumped Maldives 3-1 at their courtyard of National Football Stadium hereon Wednesday night to book their spot in the 2021 SAFF Championship Final.
Manvir Singh scored the opening goal, while Sunil Chhetri netted asecond-half brace, to hand India the three points.
Maldives striker Ali Ashfaq scored from the spot in the first half,and was the only scorer for the hosts.With this win India have now booked themselves a spot in the 2021 SAFFChampionship Final, against Nepal on Saturday, October 16.
It was a frantic start to the match in front of a partisan crowd thatshowed its support for the home side. India skipper Chhetri was alert
to chances, and started chasing the Maldives defenders from early on.He nearly created an opportunity with the pressure, as he won a
tackle, before Suresh picked up a loose ball and was fouled outsidethe box. The resulting free-kick, however, crashed into the Maldives
wall, and was soon cleared.Maldives talismanic striker Ali Ashfaq was also looking foropportunities of his own, and soon charged at the Indian penalty area,but was closed down by Rahul Bheke.
Minutes later, Brandon spotted a run by Manvir through the channels,and he tried to dunk the ball over the Maldivian defence, but the
through pass was intercepted.
A little after the quarter-hour mark, Yasir took up a dangerous position and crossed it on from the right, but it was cleared for acorner. The resulting corner from Brandon took a bounce inside the box before Kotal headed it towards Chhetri. The India captain went for the
jugular, as he attempted a back-volley, which was off target.
As the match neared the half-hour mark, Chhetri came close to scoringagain, as he managed to get a powerful header off a Brandon free-kick.
Agonisingly, though, for the Blue Tigers, the header thudded off thecross-bar. 
Soon after, Ali Ashfaq almost created a chance at the other end, as he burst into India’s defensive third. Subhasish Bose, however, was alertto the danger, and put his body on the line to block Ashfaq’s shot.
It was Manvir Singh, on the 33rd minute, who broke the deadlock, whenhe was played in behind the Maldivian defence by Brandon, as hesmashed it between keeper Mohamed Faisal and the near post, as the ball whizzed into the top corner.
Blue Tigers head coach Igor Stimac decided to make his firstsubstitution in the first half itself, replacing Mandar Rao Dessai,
who was on a yellow card, with Chinglensana Singh.
With five minutes of regulation time left in the first half, Subhasishcould have doubled the lead as he nodded it towards goal, but the ballwas lapped up by the Maldivian keeper.
On the 45th minute, Pritam Kotal was penalised for a foul inside thebox, as the referee pointed to the spot. Maldives talisman Ali Ashfaqconverted the penalty to put the hosts back on level terms athalf-time.
India came out with much gusto after the changeover. Brandon sustainedan injury five minutes into the second half, and was replaced byUdanta Singh, as Lalengmawia took over the chief playmaking responsibilities.
Chhetri had a serious crack at goal near the hour mark, when a stringof passes between Chinglensana, Lalengmawia, and Suresh ended up with the Indian skipper, whose shot went over.
Minutes later, it was Lalengmawia again, who played in a cross forManvir. The lanky forward chested the ball into the path of Chhetri,
who blasted it into the back of the net, to put India back in the lead.
Maldives immediately went looking for the second equaliser of thenight, and earned a free-kick at the edge of the Indian penalty box.
Ashfaq had struck the free-kick to go over the wall and dip as itneared the goal, but Gurpreet stepped in with an outstretched arm and 
tipped it over the bar. 
Sunil Chhetri gave India the two-goal cushion in the 71st minute, when another aerial ball by Lalengmawia into the box was headed by the India skipper. His header looped over Mohamed Faisal and into the net. 
India gaffer Igor Stimac rang in the changes soon enough, with Rahim Ali, Glan Martins, and Anirudh Thapa replacing Manvir Singh, Sunil Chhetri, and Md Yasir, respectively. 
The India head coach was soon given his marching order by the referee for a second yellow card. With the clock running down, Thapa had a late crack on goal in the last minute of regulation time, off an Udanta cross. However, the angle was too narrow, and the ball nestled into the side-netting. 
With a minute of injury time left on the clock, Subhasish Bose was also given his marching orders for a second bookable offence, before the referee finally brought the match to an end, as India made it to the final of the SAFF Championship 2021.