India found their goalscoring boots at the right time to dispatch Maldives 3-1 to enter the SAFF Championship 2021 final. Skipper Sunil Chhetri scored a brace, with the much-maligned Manvir Singh also getting on the scoresheet against the hosts.
It was a performance that brought back memories of former head coach Stephen Constantine’s reign. Under the Brit, India had become a compact, counter-attacking unit in their run to the AFC Asian Cup 2019.
Although this victory had other characteristics to it, India managed to exploit the space behind the Maldives backline. The hosts, buoyed by a boisterous home crowd, tried to play on the front foot, which ultimately left them exposed at the back.
India named an unchanged line-up from the win against Nepal, setting up in a narrow 4-4-2 formation. Brandon Fernandes and Mohammed Yasir tucked in from either flank to offer creativity, also giving space for Pritam Kotal and Mandar Rao Dessai to overlap.
Suresh Singh Wangjam and Apuia Ralte played in the center of the park, where the latter had a terrific game. His positional sense allowed him to nip Maldives attacks in the bud before they took shape. Apuia was also calm in possession, circulating the ball as well as being heavily involved in two of India’s goals.
The game got off to a good start and had a knockout feel to it. A draw would have been enough for the Maldives, but to their credit, they decided to take the game to India. Their pressure forced the Indian defense into a number of errors in the first half but the hosts could not capitalize.
One such foray into the Indian half ended up costing the Maldives when the Blue Tigers hit them on a superb counter-attack. Apuia won the ball back on the halfway line which Brandon fed Manvir with and the striker finally ended his goal drought.
The Indian defense was finding it increasingly difficult to deal with the Maldivian threat comprising iconic striker Ali Ashfaq, Hamza Mohamed and Ali Fasir. Eventually, Fasir forced Kotal into a clumsy challenge and the resulting penalty was coolly converted by Ashfaq just before half time.
India neutralize Maldives threat in second half
By then, three of India’s back four had received yellow cards, with Mandar even replaced by Chinglensana Singh in the 36th minute. The arrival of the squad’s only recognized centre-back steadied the ship in the second half.
India's second goal came from a defensive lapse by Maldives. A corner from the right was initially cleared and only half the defense stepped up for the offside trap. As Apuia sent the ball back in towards Manvir, Chhetri was left unmarked. The skipper made no mistake from Manvir’s chest-down to give India the lead again after the hour mark.
Ten minutes later, Chhetri effectively sealed the game with an exquisite header from the edge of the box. Maldives had a few efforts before the end but goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu made sure they were kept at bay.
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India have always found it easier to defeat opponents who come at them rather than those who sit back. Nepal, in their first SAFF Championship final, are likely to adopt the latter approach which worked well for them against India last time.
India head coach Igor Stimac must get the balance in attack right if he is to win his first trophy with the national team. Success will keep the wolves at the door for now but failure will see them breathing down his neck.