By Abhishek Dinman
In almost a replay of the semi-final of the SAFF Championship at the same venue in December, 2011, India once again stamped their authority on the island nation with an indomitable 3-0 triumph. Courtesy of the win, the Blue Tigers have put one foot in the final halfway through the campaign, leaving the Red Snappers well and truly defeated. Both the sides won their first match of the tournament.
Man-of-the-match Sunil Chhetri opened the scoring for India in the first-half stoppage time through a well-struck penalty. Syed Nabi doubled the lead 10 minutes into the second half through a solid header, courtesy of a Clifford Miranda corner.
Chhetri struck his third goal of the tournament and broke the Maldives’ back after connecting with a vicious header to help India take a 3-0 lead in the 66th minute.
Both teams were playing each other for the first time in the tournament’s history and it was the Maldives who kicked off with an attacking intent. They forced India to concede two corners in the first ten minutes but keeper Subrata Paul, who had a decent outing in the first game against Syria, proved equal to the task.
The Maldives’ attacking movement relied heavily on counter-attack and wing-play but they failed to break the indomitable Indian backline. Arguably South Asia’s two best sides, India seemed better prepared in tackling the Maldives’ nippy forwards.
Playing in their newly-propounded system of stitching passes in a more fluid 4-4-1-1 formation, the hosts couldn’t create any chances of their own, though. Chhetri, the lone man prowling up front, was left wanting for better support from his midfield.
The best chance of the game befell the visitors at the half-hour mark. Abdullah Asadhulla successfully negotiated two defenders in the box and passed a through ball to his skipper and talismanic striker, Ali Ashfaq. However, the ground conditions, soggy and unpredictable, didn’t help and his weak attempt went straight to the keeper, who diverted the ball for a corner.
The Maldives, ranked seven places above India at 161, continued to press forward with stinging play and but for the heroics of Paul, India could have been a goal down.
But it all turned around in a matter of minutes. India struck! Against the run of play, a useful low shot from the left flank by Nabi found Maldives’ defender Mohamed Sifan’s hand, who appeared to have deliberately put it out, and India were awarded a crucial penalty in the stoppage time.
Chhetri stepped forward to do the honours and ended up sending the keeper, Mohamed Imran, to the wrong side to send the crowd into raptures. Seconds later, the half-time whistle was sounded.
Defender Robin Singh was introduced for India at the start of the second half in place of Sanju Pradhan, who was mostly ineffectual and appeared to be suffering from fatigue.
The first ten minutes after the break belonged to India, who staged back-to-back attacks. Fitness was always a worry for the Maldives side to start with and their defence looked wobbly and at the mercy of the Indian forwards. The organised backline, that had so far seemed impenetrable, suddenly looked loose, inviting, and with gaping holes. Man-marking was found wanting and they paid the price for it.
From a well-staged counter-offensive, India earned a corner in the 53rd minute. Miranda swung in a clinical curling cross that reached the far post, where Nabi was positioned. Nabi leaped in the air, unmarked, to slam home a powerful header.
Looking to infuse fresh legs, the Maldives made a substitution in the 60th minute with Ahmed Rasheed coming in place of Ashad Ali. But India were in no mood to let up.
An ever-alert Francis Fernandes won the ball from the Maldives' player and his impeccable cross from the right flank found a diving Chhetri, who headed home for a 3-0 lead in the 66th minute. Shafiu Ahmed was left flummoxed and with his hands on his head, wondering what made him lose track of a dangerous Chhetri.
There were chances galore and it could have easily been 4-0. Miranda made a sterling run from his own half and released Chhetri. The inspirational skipper rounded the goalkeeper and rattled the post! That was, perhaps, a Fernando Torres moment when he missed against Manchester United.
India were in cruise control by now and coach Wims Koevermans, sitting relaxed and composed in the dugout, introduced the second goal-scorer against Syria, Anthony Pereira, in the 77th minute in place of Miranda, who was quite impressive.
The Maldives had begun to lose all composure in the last 15 minutes and it seemed they had given up any hope of a comeback. Skipper Ali Ashfaq was the lone bright spot for the visitors and he left no stone unturned till the last minute to pull a goal back and leave with some respectability, but to no avail.
Ashfaq could have played against Chhetri at the club level as Benfica had shown keen interest in him but he had politely refused.
Such was the Indian domination that out of the 12 shots, India had seven on target while Maldives had just one to show from their seven attempts.
It has been a good preparation for the Indians for the AFC qualifiers so far. They meet Nepal in their third group match on Tuesday.