As in the semifinal against Lebanon, Sandhu made one save, the first in sudden death, from skipper Khaled Hajiah. All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Kalyan Chaubey climbed on head coach Igor Stimac before the Croatian was thrown into the air by his players.
In the final, India was lucky in that the most valuable player and top scorer with six goals, Chhetri hit an accurate shot that hit the post. The persistence was evident from the start, and even more so after Shabaib Alhakdi’s goal in the 15th minute, which was cancelled out by Lallianzuala Chhangte in the 39th.
Udanta Singh missed from the penalty spot, but Sandesh Jhingan, Chhangte, Subhasish Bose and Mahesh Naorem each scored. Kuwait started with Mohammad Abdullah kicking his shot horizontally, and then Fawaz Alotaibi, Ahmad Aldheferri, Abdulaziz Mahran, and Alhaldi each scored. It was India’s third trophy of the year.
Believe, the banner on the right side of the India goal read. They were losing for the first time in 2023, so they needed faith all the way. Kuwait’s goal was the result of all the things Stimac, sitting in the stands because of a suspension, wouldn’t want to see. Nikhil Pujari wasn’t strong enough to maintain possession of the ball, Ashik Kuruniyan didn’t have time to step back to help Akash Mishra, India’s left-back, and India was caught offside. That was our weakest moment in the final, Sandhu said. But we didn’t give up.
In three deft touches after a long ball from the left, Kuwait scored. Will India pay the price for going on the attack from the start? The high line and start of the game with the more attacking Pujari and Mishra instead of the defensively reliable defenders Pritam Kotal and Bose were a clear statement of intent. But the passes were not going to their feet, Kuruniyan and Sahal Abdul Samad looked unimportant, and for all intents and purposes, India lacked finesse in the front third. By the 15th minute, they were losing the lead.
But there is no lack of faith in this team. This is not a team that will crowd at their goal and shoot on goal in hopes of winning the second goal. At least against some teams, they will try to play through the middle or use the speed of Kuruniyan, Chhangte and defenders. Why do you think I spent four years working on the muscles of these guys, Stimac says often. The answer to the rhetorical question lies in the energy and speed that India is showing through 2023.
With the support and encouragement of 26,380 spectators at Sri Kanteerav Stadium.Stadiumhe chanting: Go, India, and f***k you referee when Prajwol Chhetri removed Sandesh Jingan, and f****ng disgrace when Mohammad Abdullah removed Chhetri, India almost struck back in the 16th minute.
Chhante controlled and softened a long ball for Chhetri, but goalkeeper Abdulrahman Marzook kept him out, and then the rebound didn’t please Chhante, who followed it up. Chhante, named AIFF Player of the Year, has been doing it more and more this season; 10 goals and six assists in the Indian Super League (ISL) are proof of that. The Mumbai City FC midfielder has also developed the ability to work through midfield, as evidenced by the goal he scored against Jamshedpur.
It all came together in the 39th minute. Pujari’s ball to Kuruniyan, who passed it to Chhetri, showed India’s ability to patiently probe the ball. Chhetri’s quick forward pass was the change of pace and direction that Kuwait was not expecting. Samad did so and made a pass to the onrushing Chhante. This combination went like clockwork.
A series of fouls and penalties – before Chhetri was grabbed by the shirt, Anirudh Thapa was brought down by Hamad Alkallaf – showed that Kuwait was not handling what India was throwing at them well. Samad went on a strong run after Thapa found him, but Chhetri was unable to control the forward pass. Kuruniyan then took advantage of a bad pass from Marzook, and Chhetri’s soft header found Chhangte, who lacked the strength for his first left-footed shot.
The loss of central defender Anwar Ali to injury in the 35th minute meant that India lacked his ability to switch play with long passes from his left foot. But while his replacement, Mehtab Singh, had some nervous moments, the defense was composed, especially after Rohit Kumar joined Jixon Singh in adding a layer of defense. Still, it took Sandhu’s strong left hand to hold off Mohammad Abdullah’s shot in the 90th minute. India could have scored twice after that, but Kumar’s slashing shot didn’t go to his feet, and then when Udanta Singh came on goal, he made the most expensive miss of his career.
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