India brought the much-maligned SAFF Championship 2021 campaign to a happy conclusion after beating Nepal 3-0 in the final on Saturday. A two-minute goal salvo in the second half effectively killed off the game, giving India their eighth title in the competition.
The two sides met less than a week ago with India emerging narrow victors with a late Sunil Chhetri goal in a 2-1 win. The skipper opened the scoring again in the final, setting the tone for a comfortable second-half display.
India made two changes to their team from the win against Maldives, both enforced. Defender Chinglensana Singh came in for the suspended Subhashish Bose while Anirudh Thapa replaced the injured Brandon Fernandes in midfield.
The Blue Tigers kept their shape from last time as well, lining up in a 4-1-3-2 with Lalengmawia ‘Apuia’ Ralte screening the back four. Mohammed Yasir took up his right midfield role with Suresh Singh Wangjam at center and Thapa at left. Chhetri and Manvir Singh occupied the two forward positions.
Head coach Igor Stimac has avoided using a fixed style of play, instead forming a gameplan with the next opposition in mind. Against Sri Lanka, India focused on the wings for creativity whereas against Nepal the first time round, it was the central area. The counter-attack worked wonders against the Maldives, who came forward in numbers.
In the first half of the final, it was difficult to identify a set pattern of where India’s attacking play came from. The initial phase saw long balls towards Manvir who tried to get Chhetri into play through flick-ons and hold-up play.
The best chance fell to Thapa, who was thwarted by an incredible double-save by Nepal goalkeeper Kiran Limbu. Yasir’s shot from range was spilled by Limbu and as Thapa followed in for the rebound, the goalkeeper stuck out a hand to deny him.
Nepal had also changed their gameplan as they played with much more energy. When India's goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu played it short to his defenders, Nepal pressed them ferociously. This forced the Indian defenders to play it long and lose possession more often than not.
Yasir key to quickfire India double
Yasir proved to be key to India’s goals in the second half. His through ball to Pritam Kotal carved open the Nepal defense before the latter crossed in for Chhetri to finish. Less than a minute later, he provided an assist for Suresh to double India’s lead on the counter-attack.
Brandon’s absence was keenly felt in the first half but Yasir’s ability on the ball allayed those fears in the second. His ability to cut inside and play incisive passes proved very useful in breaking the Nepal defense lines.
The youngster stood out in a young Hyderabad FC side last ISL season alongside Liston Colaco. He has proved his quality on the international stage and will be set for a key role again.
Sahal Abdul Samad capped off the victory with a fine solo goal towards the end to hand Stimac his first trophy as India head coach. It has certainly bought him some time but the real tests lie ahead, in the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.