Skipper Sunil Chhetri struck in extra time as India staged a superb comeback to claim their seventh SAFF Championship title by defeating a spirited Afghanistan 2-1 in a hard-fought final at the Trivandrum International Stadium here on Sunday.
Chhetri (101st minute) scored the decisive goal for India when he capitalised on a defensive lapse by the visitors in the first half of extra time.
Earlier, the two teams were locked 1-1 after the regulation 90 minutes in a match which saw fast, end to end action with plenty of chances at both ends.
Zubayr Amiri (70th) put Afghanistan in front before Jeje Lalpekhlua (72nd) put India back in the game, and then Chhetri finally sealed the matter.
The Indians thus avenged their 2-0 loss to the defending champions in the final of the last edition in Katmandu in 2013.
The best chance of the first half fell to Jeje in the 14th minute. He did well to win the ball under pressure and played it for Narzary whose cross struck the trailing leg of Zubayr Amiri and came off Afghanistan goalkeeper Ovays Azizi. Jeje’s header on the rebound came off the crossbar, and he hit the crossbar again in the 56th minute with a powerful shot from outside the box.
The Afghanistan strike force comprising captain Faysal Shayesteh, left winger Noraollah Amiri and right winger Mustafa Zazai caused the hosts plenty of problems throughout the match. The Indian defenders did themselves no favours by some shoddy defending on several occassions.
Faysal got a superb chance when he was fed a through in the box after a nice exchange of passes with Amiri. But his powerful shot was blocked out for a corner by Gurpreet at the near post. Faysal outfoxed the Indian defence again in the 40th minute when he found himself at the end of Amiri’s cross into the box from the left, but his left-footed shot was again saved by Gurpreet.
Chhetri caused a flutter in the visitors’ defence when Narzary picked him out with a cross from the left flank. But the India captain was too slow to beat the Afghan defence and goalkeeper Azizi had no problems in gathering his weak shot.
Chhetri had another chance soon after when he was was let loose by a defence splitting pass by Jeje just before half-time, but Azizi was quick to come off his line to avert the danger.
The Indian defence was caught napping in the 52nd minute when a long diagonal pass from the midfield found Zazai in acres of space just outside the box. Zazai rushed into the box before unleashing a well-placed effort. But Gurpreet did well to dive to his left and save the blushes for the hosts.
The disappointed away fans did not have to wait too long to celebrate. Amiri put Afghanistan in front when Faysal left the Indian defence flat-footed with a defence splitting through. Amriri’s powerful run into the box was not picked up by the defenders and he had all the time in the world to produce an excellent finish, placing the ball through Gurpreet’s legs.
Jeje hit back for India only a couple of minutes later. Narzary’s accurate cross into the box from the right flank found Chhetri who headed it for Jeje to slot it into the net.
In the 87th minute, Azizi did well to dive to to his left to punch out a curling freekick from Chhetri which seemed destined for the top corner as the match rolled into extra-time.
Chhetri finally clinched the issue for India when the hosts when Sayed Hashemi fluffed his attempt to clear a free kick from the midfield. Chhetri pounced on the loose ball and did well to ward off the attention of Masih Saighani and Azizi before slotting home.
Bikas Jairu could have increased India’s lead only a couple of minutes later when he left the Afghans flat-footed with a speedy run down the left flank before cutting into the penalty box. But his shot missed the far post by mere inches.
The closing stages saw plenty of drama and even some controversy as the desparate Afghans pressed for the equaliser.
The visitors were unlucky not be awarded a penalty when a shot from the edge of the box struck the hand of Indian defender Arnab Mondal. The Afghan players appealed for a penalty which was turned down by the referee.
The incident prompted an agitated Afghan coach Petar Segr to rush into the field in protest and was red-carded by the referee.
The Afghans had another penalty appeal turned down in injury time. Faysal played pass for Ahmad Hatifie who was brought down inside the box by Jairu. But the referee turned down the impassioned pleas of the Afghan players as the partisan home crowd heaved a collective sigh of relief.