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Sunil Chhetri inspires India to 2-1 win over Afghanistan to clinch seventh SAFF Championship

With the match tied at 1-1, Chhetri's 50th international goal in extra time gave India the win

India Afghanistan Chhetri Jeje SAFF Cup 2015
India celebrate Jeje’s goal assisted by Sunil Chhetri (Image courtesy of SAFF)

India beat Afghanistan 2-1 in the final to clinch the 2015 SAFF Championship. Goals from Jeje Lalpekhlua and Sunil Chhetri saw the Blue Tigers come from behind after Zubayr Amiri had given the Afghans the lead.

This is India’s seventh SAFF win after previously clinching the title in 1993, 1997, 1999, 2005, 2009 and 2011. The two sides have met in the final in the last three editions – Afghanistan had won in 2013 and were favourites to reclaim the title in their last SAFF campaign before they 

First Half: End-to-end football but no end product

Defending champions Afghanistan faced record champions India with both teams looking to stamp their authority as the supreme side in South Asian football. Both teams came into the tournament as clear favourites and lived up to the tag throughout.

Stephen Constantine said before the game that Afghanistan were the favourites and they earned a corner early on and came close to scoring as early as the 10th minute. But soon after, the Indians attacked against the run of play.

In a dramatic sequence of events, Narzary’s cross down the left was deflected by Zubayr Amiri and saved by Ovays Azizi in the Afghan goal and almost immediately, Jeje came close to scoring but his header could only hit the post.

India Afghanistan Jeje hits the post SAFF 2015
Jeje hits the post in the first half (Image courtesy of SAFF)

A mistake by Arnab Mondal at the back was almost punished but Amiri failed to hit the target and could only manage a shot away from goal. By now the game had become exciting with both sides delineating their attacking intent. The Afghans looked more likely of the two teams to score but Arnab Mondal and Augustine Fernandes were rock solid at the back.

Right from the start, Sunil Chhetri was playing like a captain by dropping back to help out the defence and also posing a threat up front. He came close to scoring in the 33rd minute but his left-footed shot was well blocked by the Afghan custodian. Over the next few minutes, it was absolute end-to-end stuff with both sides creating chances but lacking the killer instinct up front and the teams went into the break with the score tied at 0-0.

Second Half: India hit back immediately after conceding a goal

The second half started out in a similar fashion with India looking to take advantage early on. They played some long balls forward but the results were just lacking. The absence of Robin Singh meant that the long balls could not be utilised with the likes of Alikhil and Amin calmly dealing with the Indian attack.

In the 51st minute, Petar Segrt’s men came close with Mustafa Zazai shooting on goal from the right. But Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in the Indian goal looked comfortably dealt with it. Within a few minutes, the Blue Tigers attacked and again Jeje’s shot hit the crossbar. He lobbed the ball beautifully and even beat Azizi in goal but somehow the ball did not go in.

Masih Saighani played a key role for Afghanistan in the middle of the park and on a number of occasions helped out at the back. In the 60th minute, he blocked a shot from Holicharan Narzary which looked a certain goal. Narzary and Jairu had switched flanks in the second half and that seemed to have a positive impact. Jairu was crucial going forward and Narzary helped out at the back.

However, much against the run of play, Afghanistan took the lead. Faysal played a brilliant through ball which beat the defence and Zubayr Amiri was there to collect it and slot in his side’s first goal of the game. 

But the Indians hit back within two minutes of conceding the goal. A long ball by Narzary was headed intelligently by Chhetri into the path of Jeje Lalpekhlua who calmly slotted the ball home to bring his side back into the game.

Segrt’s men made more runs forward but were often caught at the back in the second half. In the 82nd minute, they conceded a free-kick just outside the box but Chhetri’s effort was brilliantly saved by Azizi who kept his side in the game. Thereafter, both sides threatened but the goals were lacking. At the end of ninety minutes, the score was 1-1.

Extra Time: Sunil Chhetri nets the winner

Sunil Chhetri India Afghanistan
Sunil Chhetri scored his 50th goal for India

During the additional 30 minutes, both sides threatened but the alacrity was more on the part of the Afghans. They attacked down the right and Gurpreet was kept busy for the first 10 minutes of the first half. However, while the attack was doing its job, the defence slacked. A mistake at the back was quickly capitalised on by Indian captain Sunil Chhetri who, amidst all the pressure from the Afghan backline, managed to put the ball past Azizi and gave his side the lead.

Since taking the lead, the Indians sat back and absorbed the pressure. They hit on the break on a few occasions but failed to add to their lead. But the second half of extra time saw plenty of drama.

In the 23rd minute, a free-kick from a long way off hit the hands of Arnab Mondal while he was trying to clear the ball but there was no intent and that led to the referee not awarding a penalty to the reigning champions. The decision prompted a reaction from Peter Segrt and that eventually culminated in the former Georgia coach being sent to the stands. Late on, there was another appeal for a penalty but the referee just was not interested.

Stephen Constantine brought on Aiborlang Khongjee to strengthen the defence and he helped the likes of Arnab Mondal and Augustine Fernandes at the back to see out the game and thereby ensure a record seventh SAFF Cup title for the hosts.

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