MALE (Maldives), Oct 16: Talisman Sunil Chhetri equalled the iconic Lionel Messi with his 80th international strike as an inspired India blanked Nepal 3-0 for their eighth SAFF Championship title here on Saturday.
India extended their domination in the regional tournament thanks to second half goals from Chhetri (49th minute), Suresh Singh (50th) and Sahal Abdul Samad (90th).
With his strike, the 37-year-old Chhetri equalled Messi and became the second highest gaol-scorer in international football among active players.
Suresh Singh and Saha then added to the tally and paved the way for India’s title triumph, a much-needed one after a series of mediocre outings.
Sahal made it 3-0 when he dribbled past a few defenders after receiving the ball on the left flank at the stroke of the final whistle.
India dominated possession in the first-half but failed to break the deadlock. However, Chhetri put India ahead minutes into the second half and even before Nepal could down settle down, Suresh made it 2-0.
This is the Indian football team’s first title triumph under head coach Igor Stimac, who faced criticism in recent times for his side’s inability to win enough games.
However, when it mattered the most in this edition of the regional tournament, Stimac’s players delivered the results the team’s fans had been waiting for.
Stimac also became the third foreign coach after Jiri Pesek (1993) and Stephen Constantine (2015) to clinch the title with the Indian team.
Chhetri gave India the lead after he charged in to neatly head in a delivery from Pritam Kotal on the right flank, leaving the Nepalese goalkeeper with no chance to come to his team’s rescue.
Barely a minute after Chhetri’s opener, another attack by India caught Nepal completely off-guard as Suresh found the back of the net after Yasir Mohammad brilliantly cut it back for the mid-fielder.
Their tails up after two quick strikes, India pressed hard for more but could not add to the tally for a while before Sahal fond the back of the net with his solo effort.
Before Sahal’s strike, there was a chance for Manvir Singh in the 52nd minute after he was played through, but his left-footed effort was blocked.
In the 79th minute, there was great chance for Udanta Singh as he was in the clear to take a crack at goal but Rohit Chand came up with a fine block to deny the Indian winger.
It remained goalless at the break as both India and Nepal could not capitalise on the chances that came their way.
India could have gone ahead minutes before the half-time but the ball that was delivered from the right flank for Chhetri was not met with properly as the Indian captain’s his effort went wide.
However, India more than made up for that with their second-half display, much to Stimac’s delight.
India entered the game with the psychological advantage over the Himalayan country as historical or recent statistics cleared favoured Stimac’s side to lift the title yet again.
Having endured a topsy-turvy start to their campaign, India ended it in style against the first-time finalists.
The final was the 12th for India in 13 editions, showing the domination of the Blue Tigers in this regional tournament. (PTI)