India national football team registered first win of the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship 2021 campaign with a hard-fought 1-0 victory against Nepal in Male, Maldives on Sunday. (More Football News)
After two draws, against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, Sunil Chhetri & Co were staring at an early exit from the 13th edition of the regional tournament, which they have won seven times. The Blue Tigers have only once failed to qualify for the final, in 2013. And another draw or defeat against Nepal at the National Football Stadium would have put Igor Stimac's men in serious trouble.
On yet another frustrating day for India in the Maldives, India toyed with Nepal yet struggled to score. With 75 percent possession and 20 attempts on the goal, India could have decimated Nepal. But the all-important goal came as late as the 82nd minute with skipper Chhetri slotting home from a Brandon Fernandes-Farukh Choudhary one-two inside the box.
The goal helped Chhetri equalled football great Pele on 77 international goals each. The 37-year-old is now joint-third in the list of highest scorers among active footballers, sharing the slot with UAE's Ali Mabkhout. Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo (111) and Argentina's Lionel Messi (79) are the only players ahead of them.
Chhetri could have scored a brace in the match. But he missed an easy chance in the first half (33') when Suresh Wangjam fed him with a brilliant through ball. The skipper ended up missing the target from close range.
The win helped India moved to the third spot in the five-team table with five points from three matches. Nepal, after their first defeat of the campaign, are second. The Maldives, who will take on India in the final round-robin match, are top of the table. Both Maldives and Nepal have six points each but the hosts have a better goal difference.
For India to make the final, Chhetri & Co will need to beat the Maldives. A big win against the defending champions will ensure an 8th successive final appearance for India.
But, if they play out a draw, then India will have six points. In that case, India will need other results to go their way, like Bangladesh (four points after three) beating Nepal. And it may not be enough as four teams will be on six points each. Then, who go through the final will be decided on goal difference.
And a defeat on Wednesday will put India out of their misery and return home early, thus allowing their star players to prepare for the big money Indian Super League.