Kuwait 1-1 India a.e.t. (4-5 on penalties): Blue Tigers match Blue Wave before penalty heroics lift them to SAFF Championship 2023 title

Indian players celebrate Lallianzuala Chhangte
Indian players celebrate Lallianzuala Chhangte's goal against Kuwait. [Credits: AIFF Media]

Gurpreet Singh Sandhu's save and Naorem Mahesh Singh's ice-cold sudden-death penalty lifted India to a thrilling win over Kuwait in the SAFF Championship 2023 final.

The game ended 1-1 after extra time at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium on Tuesday (July 4) after Lallianzuala Chhangte's equaliser cancelled out Shabaib Alkhaldi's opener. The Blue Tigers then won 5-4 on penalties, with Sandhu saving Blue Wave captain Khaled Hajiah's sudden-death spot-kick.

India began on the front foot, creating their first chance in as early as the fourth minute. Following some decent link-up play on the left, Akash Mishra whipped a cross in for Chhangte, whose header was saved comfortably by Abdulrahman Marzouq.

Kuwait then got into their rhythm, carving out the next couple of opportunities in the game while limiting the Blue Tigers with their high press. A swift counter-attack was cut short by Shabaib Alkhaldi being offside, while Redha Abujabarah's effort from distance was deflected behind for a corner.

The Blue Wave's constant pressure eventually paid dividends, as they took the lead in the 15th minute. Another excellent move on the counter saw Sultan Alenezi find Abdullah Albloushi with a superb crossfield ball. Albloushi set Mohammad Abdullah free on the right and his ball in was swept home by Alkhaldi.

India, cheered on by a raucous crowd at the Kanteerava, almost responded less than two minutes later. A brilliant ball over the top was brought down well by Chhangte but was half-cleared by the Kuwait defence. It came out to Sunil Chhetri, whose effort from the edge of the box was on target, but saved by Marzouq.

Chhangte tried to follow up, but Hamad Alqallaf was first to the ball and cleared it out for a corner. The resulting set-piece was once again only half cleared by the Kuwait defence and came back to Anirudh Thapa, who drilled an effort on goal. However, Marzouq repelled the shot with his feet to keep his side in the lead.

As the game grew physical, both sides were forced into changes before the 35-minute mark. Hasan Alanezi was subbed off for Rui Bento's men, with Hamad Alharbi taking his place, while Anwar Ali was replaced by Mehtab Singh for India.

Kuwait's press continued to trouble the hosts, with Mobarak Alfaneeni seeing a curler from distance whistle just wide of the post in the 37th minute. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was left rooted to his spot and could only see the ball sail behind.

However, India survived the onslaught and eventually equalised just two minutes after Alfaneeni's shot. Chhetri released Sahal Abdul Samad down the left flank and the winger sent a well-placed cut-back to the far-post. Chhangte escaped his marker to tap the ball into an empty net to bring his side level.

The final ten minutes of the half (including stoppage time) saw both teams show more defensive focus. Kuwait did receive one more opportunity from a free-kick on the right flank, but Ahmad Aldhefeery's effort was punched out by Sandhu.

A first half played at breakneck speed eventually came to a close with the two teams level at 1-1.

India and Kuwait struggle to break each other down as SAFF Championship 2023 final moves to extra time

The second half began in much more tepid fashion than the first as both teams played at a slower tempo. Sahal Abdul Samad and Akash Mishra came up with a couple of moments of genius for India but couldn't find the final pass. Meanwhile, Kuwait could not move the ball wide as effectively as they did in the first half.

The Blue Wave did create some danger in the 59th minute through Mohammad Abdullah's cross into the box. However, Sandesh Jhingan did well to guide it over his own crossbar for a corner.

At the other end, an optimistic ball forward was flicked on by Sunil Chhetri to Lallianzuala Chhangte just past the hour mark. The 2022-23 AIFF Men's Player of the Year got a first-time shot away, but it was a tame effort that was easily saved by Abdulrahman Marzouq.

The next 20 minutes saw a couple of half chances that were easily dealt with by both sides. Redha Abujabarah then saw a free-kick deflected behind for a corner, while Abdullah also fired an effort just wide of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu's post.

Kuwait's best chance of the half came in stoppage time when Abdullah's shot was saved well by Sandhu at his near-post. That was followed by some excellent play from India, who went close through Chhetri after substitute Naorem Mahesh Singh did brilliantly to latch on to Mishra's ball over the top.

However, the Indian captain, who was slightly off balance, put the ball well over the crossbar from the left side of the penalty spot. With that, the game moved into extra time, with the scores still level at 1-1.

Extra time began with Kuwait asserting dominance and repeatedly getting into India's defensive third. The Blue Tigers' defence had to come up with multiple rushed clearances and last-ditch tackles to keep their opponents from getting a shot or cross away.

India responded well and slowly began seizing the initiative after the 95th minute with their co-ordinated press. That led to them winning a free-kick on the right flank, which was worked short brilliantly by the team to find Mahesh in the box. However, Kuwait did well to clear it out before he could cause any danger.

Rui Bento's men eventually created the best opening of the half through a shot from the left, but Sandhu saved with ease. Kuwait began the second half well, forcing a save from India's No. 1 inside the opening two minutes. However, they struggled to keep that momentum going as multiple players from both teams went down due to cramps, breaking the flow of the contest.

Nikhil Poojary created India's best chance of the period in the 119th minute with some ingenious trickery on the right to get to the by-line. He crossed to the back post, where Chhangte brought the ball down but fired over with his weaker right foot. That proved to be the final clear-cut opportunity of the game as the final moved into a penalty shootout.

Chhetri stepped up first for India and scored off the post to put his side 1-0 up. Abdullah then made his way to the spot for Kuwait. Up against an imposing Gurpreet, he went for power, but his shot cannonned back off the crossbar.

Advantage India.

Jhingan was next up for the Blue Tigers and went to the same corner, burying it into the top right corner to make it 2-0. Substitute Fawaz Alotaibi stepped up for Kuwait and sent Sandhu the wrong way to get his team on the board.

Chhangte, the goalscorer, then sprinted to the spot for India. He too went to the same top right corner as his two other teammates and scored to make it 3-1. Ahmad Aldhefeery, though, quickly silenced the raucous crowd by scoring past Sandhu, who dived the right way.

Substitute Udanta Singh was next up for India and went for the top right corner as well. However, this time, the shot sailed over the crossbar. Kuwait were alive again. Another substitute, Abdulaziz Mahran, ensured his team made the most of the opportunity, scoring to bring his team level for the first time.

Subhasish Bose, who had replaced Mishra in extra time, was India's fifth penalty taker. With ice in his veins, the left-footer went the exact same corner as his four teammates before him and found the net to make it 4-3. However, India's joy came to another pause as Alkhaldi beat Sandhu to force sudden death.

Mahesh took the Blue Tigers' sixth spot-kick and scored into the same corner to put his team back in front. The stage was set for more Sandhu heroics, and he delivered, saving Kuwait captain Hajiah's spot-kick by diving full stretch.

In the process, India defended their SAFF Championship title with a famous win that further validated the rise they have enjoyed over the last few months. For Kuwait, the wait for a major trophy since 2004 continues.

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Edited by Anantaajith Raghuraman
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