India won the SAFF Championship for the record ninth time, albeit by fending off perhaps the toughest challenge they have ever faced in this competition, as the Blue Tigers secured a 5-4 win over Kuwait on penalties. The two teams were inseparable after 120 minutes, with the scoreline reading 1-1 in Bengaluru’s Sree Kanteerava Stadium on Tuesday, 4 July, but heroics from Gurpreet Singh Sandhu earned India what was a perfectly deserved piece of silverware.
Unlike the semi-final, wherein Lebanon caught the hosts by surprise in the first few minutes of the game, skipper Sunil Chhetri and his players looked in complete control of the game against Kuwait, sticking to their attacking flair and not resorting to defensive tactics.
The left flank, in particular, wreaked havoc for the Indians, with the pairing of Akash Mishra and Ashique Kuruniyan launching one attack after another into the Kuwaiti box, eventually calling their shot-stopper, Abdulrahman Kameel into action.
Yet, completely against the run of play, India found themselves with back to the wall in the 15th minute, as Kuwait scored from what was their first major chance in the match. A counter-attack proved to be fatal as Rui Bento’s midfield players switched the ball from the left flank to the right, wherein rapid right-back, Abdullah Al-Buloishi was in acres of space.
The Al-Arabi player still had his work cut out, as he faced a few players in orange standing between him and his potential target inside the box. However, he was successful in passing the thread through the eye of the needle, as his delivery found Shabaib Al-Khaldi – the leading goal-scorer of the current Kuwaiti team, who scored his eighth goal by placing his shot past a diving, and helpless, Gurpreet.
Deficit Doesn't Derail India
The deficit could not derail either the Indian players or the fans, who became more vocal than ever before, as the team kept on inundating the opposition’s box with ominous attacks. For the majority of the first half, Bento’s backline did well to remain unbreakable, until the gates were breached in the 38th minute.
Yet again, the goal was the essential by-product of intricate and subtle short passes, and not a wayward-yet-fortunate long ball. The sequence started when Ashique Kuruniyan found the ball on the left flank, before using Chhetri, who was standing outside the box.
Using the skipper as a decoy, Sahal Abdul Samad had made a darting run into the box, and Chhetri was accurate enough to find him with an instantaneous pass. The job, till then, was only half done. Albeit Samad was through on goal with no defenders ahead of him, he had to face an onrushing goalkeeper, who did position himself well enough to be ready for any shot on target.
Ultimately, the shot never arrived, as Samad showed presence of mind by choosing to square it for Lallianzuala Chhangte, who was placed at the opposite end of the penalty box, and has the simplest of tasks of placing the ball into an empty net.
India Won Two Battles
The second half was pretty even. Albeit the majority of the major chances fell to the Indians, Kuwait did look intimidating on the counters, with their pacy wingers, Mubarak Al Faneni and Mohammad Abdullah Daham keeping the Indian full-backs on their toes.
Kuwait could have won the match in the last minute of the stipulated period, when Daham went for glory and nearly found glory as well, except that Gurpreet came up with an astonishing save.
For Bento’s team, the best phase of the game was the first half of extra time, wherein tired legs were all but evident in the Indian side, as they fought two battles – one against Kuwait, and the other against fatigue.
They won both battles effectively to take the game to penalties, wherein the battle of nerves were conquered for the second consecutive match. Four of India’s initial five penalty-takers converted their opportunities, with Udanta Singh being the solitary exception, whilst Daham sent his attempt into Row Z of the stadium.
In sudden death, Naorem Mahesh Singh exhibited nerves of steel, despite still being new to international football, whilst the opposition skipper’s attempt was spectacularly saved by Gurpreet, handing India a title, and the fans a night to cherish forever.