By Akhil Rawat
BENGALURU: A glorious night in Indian football history unfolded on a terrific Tuesday at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru, as the Blue Tigers defeated Kuwait 5-4 on penalties, to claim the Bangabandhu SAFF Championship 2023 title in Bengaluru.
Kuwait 1 (4) (Shabaib Al-Khaldi 14′)
India 1 (5) (Lallianzuala Chhangte 38′)
In the summit clash of what was the biggest and most competitive SAFF Championship ever, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s winning save etched India’s ninth sub-continental title, adding another chapter to the nation’s regional supremacy. The game ended 1-1 after 120 minutes; Shabaib Al-Khaldi had put Kuwait in front early on, and newly-crowned AIFF Player of the Year Lallianzuala Chhangte equalised later in the first half.
With this win, Igor Stimac becomes the first foreign head coach to win back-to-back SAFF Championship titles. This was also the first time that India defeated two West Asian countries in back-to-back matches, after winning the semi-final against Lebanon, also on penalties.
It was a cautious start to the game, with both sides trying to keep hold of the ball and build from the back. India registered the first shot on target, a rather weak one as Lallianzuala Chhangte’s header from an Akash Mishra cross fell straight into the gloves of Abdulrahman Marzouq.
Kuwait took the lead with a meticulously-crafted move in the final third. Mobarak Al-Faneeni sprayed the ball to right-back Abdullah Al-Bloushi, whose cutback was slotted into the net by an unmarked Shabaib Al-Khaldi right outside the six-yard box.
The hosts, not feeling let down one bit amidst the Kanteerava’s huge roars of “India! India!” almost equalised in the very next minute. Chhangte’s powerful left-footed strike from the edge of the box was saved by Marzouq before Chhetri rushed in to meet the rebound, but Khaled Hajiah cleared it away.
That chance sparked off the Indian front line, and the cautiousness of the beginning gave way to all-out attack. However, both sides suffered setbacks in defence as Hasan Al-Enezi and Anwar Ali had to be substituted due to injuries. The Indian suffered a blow to his hamstring and was replaced by Mehtab Singh.
If Kuwait’s opener was a proper team effort, India bettered it with an even more silky smooth goal for the equaliser. After Ashique Kuruniyan was allowed time on the ball on the left, he picked out Sunil Chhetri, who in turn, spotted Sahal Abdul Samad’s run into the box and played him through with a first-time pass. The midfielder laid it for Chhangte across the face of goal, who tapped it in with the gaping goal in front of him.
Kuwait found it difficult to maintain their discipline intact towards the end of the first half, with Reda Abujabarah, Al-Bloushi, Ahmad Al-Dhefeery and assistant coach Ahmad Al-Shammari all going into the referee’s book.
Nepal referee Prajwol Chetri was kept busy after the break as well, dishing out cards for both teams. Kuruniyan was shown the yellow between Kuwait’s Hamad Al-Qallaf and Mohammad Abdullah’s bookings, the latter for an unceremonious tug off the ball on Chhetri’s back.
A fine opportunity went to double his and India’s tally went begging for Chhangte at the hour mark. Chhetri flicked the ball into the box with his head, and with Sahal letting it go as he arrived from an offside position, Chhangte hit it first-time but couldn’t get enough purchase on the shot to trouble Marzouq.
Growing a bit impatient in attack, Kuwait saw two long-range efforts flash wide of Gurpreet’s goal from Al-Qallaf and Abdullah. Al-Khaldi also spurned two free-kicks – both deflecting off the wall – first from 30 yards out, then from just outside the area.
Semi-final hero Gurpreet came to India’s rescue again in the dying minutes of the second half, diving low at his near post to push out Abdullah’s right-footed shot.
Immediately, on the other end, Kuwait had two close shaves. Mahesh found Rohit Kumar on the overlap, whose cutback fell just behind Chhetri and into no man’s land. Just before the full-time whistle, Chhangte found Udanta in the box, who slipped before the loose ball fell for Chhetri, but the skipper could only fire over.
That missed opportunity meant that the SAFF Championship Final would head into extra time for the fifth time in the tournament’s history.
India were pegged back during the initial stages of extra time, but strong blocks from Naorem Mahesh Singh and Sandesh Jhingan didn’t allow anything to reach Gurpreet.
Set-pieces have been one of India’s biggest weapons in the tournament and they looked to make the most out of it in the 98th minute. From a free-kick near the touchline, Mahesh passed to Chhetri outside the box, who cleverly picked out Udanta, who had made a dummy run towards the by-line, but his cross was blocked by the Kuwait backline.
Soon after the play restarted in the second half of extra time, Mehtab made one of the most crucial blocks of the night, throwing his body at Fawaz Al-Otaibi’s shot from close range after Abdullah had sent him through with an intelligent backheel.
With just two minutes, the last chance to win it in normal time fell for India. Nikhil Poojary’s curling cross from the right dropped for Chhangte, who took it down before blazing over with his weaker right foot.
It came down to the dreaded penalty shootout in the end, the second in a row for India in the 2023 SAFF Championship, after having defeated Lebanon from the 12-yard spot. Chhetri, Jhingan, Chhangte, and Subhasish scored for India, while Al-Otaibi, Al-Dhefeery, Mahran, and Al-Khaldi netted their respective penalties for Kuwait. For India, Udanta was the only unsuccessful penalty taker, sending his spot-kick over the cross-bar, while Abdullah hit the woodwork from his kick for Kuwait. Blue Tigers goalkeeper Gurpreet was the hero of the night, as he saved the last penalty of the SAFF Championship final by Kuwait captain Haijah, to win India their ninth title.
AIFF President Mr. Kalyan Chaubey presented the winners’ trophy to India.
The awards for the night-
Fair play award – Nepal
Best goalkeeper of the competition – Anisur Rahman Zico – Bangladesh
Highest Goalscorer award – Sunil Chhetri
Most valuable player of the competition – Sunil Chhetri
Winners’ – 50,000 USD (India)
Runners-up – 25,000 USD (Kuwait)