By Derek Michael
A brace from Sunil Chhetri and another one from Syed Rahim Nabi powered India to a 3-1 victory over 10-man Maldives in the first semifinal of the 9th SAFF Championship at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi on Friday.
Nabi opened the scoring for the defending champions in the 22nd minute, but midfielder Shamweel Qasim equalized for Maldives on the hour.
But Man of the Match Sunil Chhetri converted from the spot kick in the 70th minute and added another in injury time of the second half to seal victory for the host nation.
India started on an attacking note with winger Clifford Miranda having a crack at the goal. The Maldives keeper Imran Mohammed managed to block the shot, but the rebound fell on striker Jeje Lalpekhula’s feet. The Indian striker made a hash of it.
Maldives striker Ali Ashfaq had two chances in a space of five minutes to score but messed both with ill-directed attempts.
The Indians kept pressuring Maldives and were rewarded in the 24th minute. India won a freekick and Miranda's perfect cross from 40 yards was tapped in by Nabi from inside the six-yard box.
In the second half, five-time champions India went into a shell after failing to take advantage of a 46th minute freekick after Chhetri was brought down just outside the box.
Maldives were rewarded with the equaliser in the 60th minute. From the left flank, Ibrahim Fazeel sent in a perfect through for Akram Abdul Ghani, who set up Shamweel Qasim, whose low drive beat the Indian goalie Karanjit Singh.
A foul on Chhetri won India a spotkick in the 70th minute. Maldives defender Mohamed Umair must have made the costliest error in the game. Chhetri made no mistake, scoring his sixth goal of the tournament.
Maldives started pressing for the equaliser again but they lacked the finish in the scoring zone. India wrapped up the match in stoppage time after Jeje set up Chhetri with a nice through. Chhetri’s found the net with a low drive to make it 3-1.
To add insult to injury, Maldives lost Ahmed Thariq in the dying minutes of the match. The striker was shown the red card for a rude gesture to an Indian player.
INDIA: Karanjit Singh (GK); Nirmal Chhetri, Gouramangi Moirangthem Singh, Mahesh Gawli, Syed Rahim Nabi; Anthony Periera (Steven Dias 71st minute), Rocus Lamare, Climax Lawrence (Jewel Raja 85th minute), Clifford Miranda; Sunil Chhetri, Jeje Lalpekhula (Sushil Kumar 90+5th minute).
MALDIVES: Imran Mohammed (GK); Akram Abdul Ghani, Asad Ghani, Shafiu Ahmed; Mohamed Umair, Ismail Mohammed (Houssain Mohamed 82nd minute), Ibrahim Fazeel, Mohammed Sifan (Ashad Ali 89th minute); Shamweel Qasim, Ali Ashfaq, Ahmed Thariq.
REFEREE: Timur Faizullin (Kyrgyzstan)