Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu pulled off a save in the penalty shootout as India defeated Lebanon 4-2 in a tiebreak following a goalless draw post extra time, in the semifinals of the SAFF Championship 2023 at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium on Saturday, 1 July.
The victory booked the hosts their spot in the summit clash of the competition, where they will meet Kuwait. India will defend their SAFF Championship title against Kuwait at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium on Tuesday, 4 July.
Gurpreet saved the first penalty for Lebanon by Maatouk, giving the Indian penalty takers the confidence to put their spot-kicks into the back of the net. Chhetri, Anwar, Mahesh and Udanta converted their first four penalties for India, while Walid Shour and Mohamad Sadek netted their kicks for Lebanon. Khalil Bader sent the fourth and last penalty for Lebanon into the stands, sending India into the final.
Lebanon and India faced each other twice last month in Intercontinental Cup, with the latter keeping two clean sheets and winning one tie. The Cedars started the SAFF Championship semifinal with a lot of impetus, looking to break their duck against an Indian defence that was without experienced centre-back Sandesh Jhingan, who was suspended, having picked up two bookings in the group stage. Mehtab Singh came in as the replacement for the 29-year-old.
Also missing for India, were striker Rahim Ali, and head coach Igor Stimac, both of whom had been sent off in their last match against Kuwait. Both teams created several chances but could not find the back of the net.
Nader Matar had the opportunity to put Lebanon in the lead in the first minute itself, after being played into the six-yard box. His volley, however, lacked any semblance of control and flew off into the Bengaluru night.
Weathering the early storm, India looked to change the tempo of the game, as they tried to keep the ball and slow down the pace. Mehtab picked up an early booking, as he tried to keep Hassan Maatouk out.
The Blue Tigers soon altered their system, pushing Jeakson Singh back between the two centre-backs while in possession. More importantly, it was when they were out of possession that they really tightened the screws on Lebanon, pressing high with captain Sunil Chhetri leading from the front.
India came closest to taking the lead with three minutes of regulation time left when a dangerous corner by Mahesh Naorem struck Zain on the head and the ball proceeded to crash into the woodwork. Udanta Singh soon replaced Ashique Kuruniyan in injury time, before the referee blew the long whistle, which meant that the two teams would have another 30 minutes to decide the matter.
India Claw Their Way Back
It was time to dig deep, and 38-year-old Sunil Chhetri did dig deep indeed, as he drove his way into the Lebanon box at the start of extra time, but Lebanon keeper Khalil was on hand to keep him out. The India captain shot over the cross-bar minutes later off a cross from Udanta; the scores were still undisturbed.
The tides turned in the second half of extra time, with Lebanon having a go at India. Substitute Khalil Bader had a crack from long range, sending his effort wide. Maatouk also got into a dangerous position for sending in a cross from the right, but Mehtab Singh was on hand to clear it.
India, however, slowly began to claw their way back, and Rohit initiated a brilliant counter-attack that saw Udanta enter the Lebanon box. He sold a couple of stepovers, before running out of real estate, as Lebanon keeper Khalil came off his line to smother the ball.
Lebanon, anticipating the impending penalty shootout, brought on substitute goalkeeper Ali Sabeh in place of Mehdi Khalil in injury time of extra time. The two teams soon ran out of time, as the referee blew his whistle sending the match into the dreaded penalty shootout, which eventually India won the match thanks to Gurpreet Singh Sandhu's heroics.