With a hard-fought 1-0 triumph over Nepal in Male, Maldives on Sunday, India’s national football team earned their first win of the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship 2021 campaign. (Learn More About Football)
Sunil Chhetri and his teammates were facing an early exit from the 13th edition of the regional event, which they had won seven times, after two draws against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Only once have the Blue Tigers failed to qualify for the final, in 2013. And a draw or loss to Nepal at the National Football Stadium would have put Igor Stimac’s side in severe trouble.
India flirted with Nepal in the Maldives on yet another torturous day, but failed to score. India could have annihilated Nepal with 75 percent possession and 20 shots on goal. The game-winning goal came in the 82nd minute, when skipper Chhetri slotted home a one-two between Brandon Fernandes and Farukh Choudhary inside the area.
Chhetri’s goal helped him tie Pele for the most international goals with 77. The 37-year-old is currently tied for fourth place among active footballers with Ali Mabkhout of the United Arab Emirates. Only Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal (111 points) and Lionel Messi of Argentina (79 points) are ahead of them.
Chhetri had a chance to score a hat trick in the game. However, he squandered a simple chance in the first half (33′), when Suresh Wangjam sent him a wonderful through pass. From close range, the skipper was unable to hit the objective.
With five points from three matches, India moved up to third place in the five-team league. Nepal is in second place after their first loss of the season. The Maldives are on top of the table and will face India in the final round-robin match. Although both the Maldives and Nepal have six points, the hosts have a higher goal differential.
Chhetri and his teammates must defeat the Maldives in order to get to the final. India will reach the final for the eighth time in a row if they defeat the reigning champions.
However, if the game ends in a tie, India will receive six points. In that case, India will need other results to go their way, such as Bangladesh defeating Nepal (four points after three). And that might not be enough, as four teams will be tied for sixth place with six points each. Then, on goal difference, it will be decided who advances to the final.
And a loss on Wednesday will put India out of their misery and force them to return home early, giving their key players more time to prepare for the lucrative Indian Super League.