Lebanon 0-0 India a.e.t. (2-4 on penalties): Blue Tigers set up SAFF Championship 2023 final date with Kuwait after thrilling shootout win

Sunil Chhetri in action during India
Sunil Chhetri in action during India's match against Lebanon. [Credits: AIFF]

India showed nerves of steel in the penalty shootout to claim a thrilling 4-2 win on penalties over Lebanon and qualify for the SAFF Championship 2023 final. The semifinal clash at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium initially ended goalless after extra time on Saturday (July 1).

Lebanon, unaffected by the hostile crowd in Bengaluru, began the game in stunning fashion, creating a chance inside the opening minute. Zein Abidine Farran played a superb cross in from the right after some neat build-up play to find an unmarked Nader Matar just a few yards from the goal-line. However, Matar volleyed his effort well over the crossbar from near unmissable range.

The Cedars opened up the home rearguard a second time shortly, courtesy of some more excellent build-up play. This time, their captain Hassan Maatouk slipped in Farran, whose shot was well-saved by Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.

India eventually found their footing after the opening ten minutes, stifling Lebanon's tactic to play out from the back. The Blue Tigers created their first opening of the game when Sunil Chhetri picked the ball up close to the halfway line and fed Jeakson Singh. Singh, rather than going for the shot, tried to square it to Sahal Abdul Samad, who was offside.

That was followed by opportunities for both Indian full-backs from Anirudh Thapa's deliveries into the box. While Pritam Kotal headed into the side-netting from an open-play cross, Subhasish Bose nodded wide from a free-kick.

Anwar Ali tried his luck from distance, firing an effort on target from close to the centre circle. However, Mehdi Khalil got on top of the bounce to safely claim it under no pressure.

Having weathered the storm, Lebanon went close twice through Maatouk from free-kicks. The first one, from further out on the right, was claimed by Sandhu, while the second, a curler from close to the edge of the box was tipped behind for a corner. Maatouk's effort looked destined for the top corner before Sandhu intervened.

While both teams tested each others' defensive resolve, they created no more clear-cut chances, which meant the score remained goalless at half-time.

India and Lebanon cancel each other out as SAFF Championship 2023 semifinal moves to extra time

The second half was a largely cagey affair, with both teams feeling each other out in the first 15 minutes. Lebanon substitute Karim Darwich got the first chance of the half with a header that was straight at Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.

India's first chance after the break once again came from an Anirudh Thapa delivery, but Sunil Chhetri headed his corner over. Shortly after that, the Cedars pushed forward, with Zein Abidine Farran finding Hassan Maatouk on the right. Maatouk beat his man and bore down on the box before sending his shot over the crossbar.

The remainder of the second half saw few moments to scream about. Substitute Naorem Mahesh Singh's free-kick seemed to be handled in the box by Hussein Zein, but referee Sinan Hussain wasn't interested.

Zein was in the thick of it all again when he turned one of India's barrage of corners from either side towards his own goal. Fortunately, for the Lebanon defender, the ball hit the top of the crossbar on its way behind rather than bulging the top of the net.

While Mahesh and Akash Mishra certainly improved India's forays forward, they could not test Cedars custodian Mehdi Khalil during the second half. Likewise, the visitors also failed to force Sandhu into saves as the game moved to extra time.

India seize initiative in extra time before sealing victory in thrilling penalty shootout

India seemingly learned from their mistakes during regulation, starting the first half of extra time in breakneck speed. Less than five minutes in, Chhetri created a chance out of nothing, sending a bullet on the half volley towards goal. However, Khalil made the save of the contest, leaping to palm the ball over.

Chhetri continued to be heavily involved in the first 15 minutes. Shortly after Khalil's save, substitute Udanta Singh raced down the right wing before cutting the ball back into the penalty box. Chhetri met it but put his shot into the roof of the net.

Chhangte then got into the act, lobbing a poor clearance by Lebanon from a corner into the box. It was met by Mehtab Singh at the far post, but off balance, he put it wide.

Chhetri received another chance in the first 15 minutes of extra time when Rohit Kumar stood up a cross from Chhangte's pass. However, once again, the Indian captain put his header wide.

In the second period, Lebanon went close early on. The Cedars countered after clearing Mahesh's dangerous free-kick, working it to Farran. He bore down on goal before firing a right-footed curler from the left side of the box that had Sandhu worried, but it sailed wide eventually.

India responded by moving the ball out wide, winning a couple of corners. The Blue Tigers then went close following a brilliant solo run by Udanta, who left a couple of Lebanon defenders in his wake before forcing a good save from Khalil.

Another close call followed towards the end of extra time when Mehtab's header from a long ball found Mahesh in space. He, in turn, fed Chhangte, whose shot took a deflection but was saved brilliantly by Khalil.

That would notably be the Lebanon custodian's last bit of action, as he was replaced by back-up goalkeeper Ali Sabeh with an eye on the penalty shootout. That's exactly where the game headed after finishing goalless at the end of 120 minutes.

Chhetri stepped up first for India and buried the ball into the bottom corner even though Sabeh dived the right way. Maatouk made his way to the spot for Lebanon and went for the other corner but was repelled brilliantly by Sandhu to give the Blue Tigers the advantage.

Anwar Ali walked up to the spot and went to the same corner as his captain, burying his effort to put India 2-0 up. Walid Shour stepped up for Lebanon and scored past Sandhu to halve the deficit.

Next up for India was Mahesh, who sent Sabeh the wrong way with a shot into the same corner once again. It was a massive moment, but the winger kept his calm to put the hosts 3-1 up in the shootout. Mohamad Sadek, who came on in the final seconds of extra time, then walked up to the spot and buried the ball into the bottom corner even though Sandhu guessed right.

With his team leading 3-2, Udanta, who was brilliant after coming on, stepped up to the plate for India. He went for the same side but belted his shot into the top corner to put the Blue Tigers on the cusp of the final.

Another Lebanon substitute, Khalil Bader, walked to the spot needing to score to keep his team in the contest. However, the pressure seemingly got to him, as he blasted his shot well over the crossbar to seal a thrilling 4-2 win on penalties for India.

Chhetri and Co. will now take on Kuwait in the final of the SAFF Championship 2023 on Tuesday (July 4) as they look to defend their title.

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Edited by Anantaajith Raghuraman
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