Indian juggernaut rolls on; Nepal tamed 2-0

The Indian senior men’s team booked their spot in the semi-finals of the Bangabandhu SAFF Championship 2023 with a 2-0 win over Nepal in Group A on Saturday, June 24, 2023, at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru.

With this victory, India extended their unbeaten run on home turf to 12 matches. Ever since September 5, 2019, when India lost to Oman, no other international team could leave the pitch in India by tasting victory against the hosts.

After a first half where the Blue Tigers were left frustrated by the stubborn Nepal defense, goals from captain Sunil Chhetri and Naorem Mahesh Singh after the break bagged the three points for the hosts, who had assistant coach Mahesh Gawli on the touchline in place of the suspended Igor Stimac.

Kuwait beat Pakistan 4-0 earlier in the day and will join India in the semi-final from Group A. Nepal, finalists of the previous edition, are eliminated.

There were as many as eight changes to the India side that cruised past Pakistan 4-0 in the opener. Only hat-trick hero Sunil Chhetri, Anirudh Thapa and Sahal Abdul Samad were retained in the eleven. In the entirely-new backline, Rahul Bheke was handed his first start of the month.

The game started at a lighter pace than the one three days earlier. India, expectedly, did see plenty of possession in the starting stages and most of their attacks came from the left wing, with Akash Mishra, Naorem Mahesh Singh and Sahal, who occasionally drifted wide.

The latter spurned the first big chance of the game in the 16th minute when Akash cut the ball back from the by-line but he could only side-foot it wide.

In the very next minute, Nepal lodged their first shot on target as Mehtab Singh’s clearance fell for Arik Bista, whose first-time volley was well-saved by Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.

Nepal had Manish Dangi causing India trouble from the right flank. On one such occasion, his low cross was met with a vital interception by Rohit Kumar, allowing the hosts to move forward on the counter-attack. In a three-on-three situation, Sahal took a bit too much time to pick out a pass and was dispossessed by the visitors.

India came out a much more rejuvenated side after the break, and after Mahesh’s snapshot from distance flashed just wide, the deadlock was broken in classic fashion in the 61st minute.

Sahal and Mahesh combined well before the latter sent an inch-perfect low cross into the middle for Sunil Chhetri to tap in his 91st international goal with the simplest of touches.

India were finally getting in the groove and less than 10 minutes later, the lead was doubled after a rather bizarre first India goal for Mahesh. As Sahal sent Chhetri clean through, the skipper took his time before releasing his right-footed shot. The effort was deflected by goalkeeper Kiran Kumar Limbu, bounced twice on the crossbar before Mahesh bundled it in from point-blank range.

Limbu was called into action soon again and prevented the fiery Indian offense from registering more goals. He made two strong saves in quick succession to first keep out substitute Lallianzuala Chhangte’s shot from a narrow angle before holding firm to Bheke’s header from the resulting corner.

India will take on Kuwait in their last Group A match on Tuesday, June 27, at 7:30 pm IST to determine who tops the group.

India XI: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu (GK), Nikhil Poojary (Pritam Kotal 73′), Rahul Bheke, Mehtab Singh, Akash Mishra, Rohit Kumar (Jeakson Singh Thounaojam 63′), Anirudh Thapa, Sahal Abdul Samad (Rahim Ali 82′), Naorem Mahesh Singh, Sunil Chhetri (C), Udanta Singh (Lallianzuala Chhangte 63′).

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