Captain Sunil Chhetri found the target yet again as India beat a spirited Nepal 2-0 in their second group match to book a berth in the SAFF Championship semifinals in Bengaluru on Saturday. (More Football News)
Chhetri (61st minute) scored his fourth goal of the tournament before Mahesh Singh (70th) struck to notch up the home side's second consecutive win. India had beaten Pakistan 4-0 in their opening match on Wednesday with Chhetri scoring a hat-trick.
Chhetri (91 goals from 139 matches) had already become the second most prolific scorer among Asians -- after Ali Daei (109 from 148 matches) of Iran -- and third among active players in the world. He is the most prolific goal-getter among active Asian players.
With six points from two wins, India qualified for the semifinals from Group A along with Kuwait (also six points), who beat Pakistan 4-0 earlier in the day for their second victory.
India play Kuwait on June 27 to decide the group winner. Nepal and Pakistan are out of the reckoning for a semifinal spot as they lost two matches each.
Before India broke the deadlock, they had to ward off a strong fight from Nepal. India entered the match with large scale changes as only Chhetri, Anirudh Thapa and Sahal Abdul Samad retained their places in the starting 11 from the previous match against Pakistan.
Nepal ran India close the whole of first half with a fine display of solid defence and quick counterattacks.
The first clear chance of the match came Sahal’s way but his header from a cross sailed just wide of the goal post in the 21st minute.
Nepal could have gone 1-0 up in the match had Bimal Ghatri was a bit quicker with his shot, as it was kicked away by Rohit Kumar close to the goal line in the 34th minute.
In the 41st minute, Mahesh Singh, who made a fine run down the right flank, jinked a lovely cross to Sahal inside the box but the latter overran the ball and could not execute a volley.
India showed more urgency and purpose in the second half, and the result came their way in the 61st minute.
Sahal and Mahesh engaged themselves in a lighting one-two to evade Nepalese defence before finding an unmarked Chhetri inside the box, and the forward just had to beat goalkeeper Kiran Limbu.
The goal energized the Indian players and they continued the search for another with Sahal marshalling the midfield brilliantly. The Kerala man along with Mahesh Singh worked the engine room of India in the second half.
The second goal was a tribute to Sahal’s speed and skills. The midfielder made a bull run through the centre and his pass found Chhetri but his shot deflected off Limbu.
However, Mahesh Singh was right in place to head the ball into the net in the 70th minute as India gained a decisive 2-0 lead.
Despite conceding a two-goal lead, Nepal tried gamely to stage a comeback. But India were able to keep the scoreline intact.