That Nepal had the best chance in the first half is not a reflection of how the game went, but it did show that they had the sense to probe a team that is 74 places above them in the FIFA rankings with number 101. Under Vincenzo Albert Annese, who won the I-League with Gokulam Kerala and worked briefly for North East United, Nepal tried to hit the break, disrupt India’s rhythm by taking long breaks for injuries when possible and absorbing pressure when it was impossible.
If Gurpreet Singh Sandhu hadn’t hit off Anjan Bista’s apt long-range shot in the 17th minute, Nepal would have been ahead. Bista’s first shot came from a corner kick by Mehtab Singh. Singh and Sandhu were among eight changes made by assistant coach Mahesh Gawali, who replaced suspended head coach Igor Stimats in the stands at Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru.
Bimal Garthi Magar and Laken Limbu teamed up to try to find Manish Dangi on the left, another move that nearly failed India, as did Dangi, who robbed Akash Mishra. That move came off because Rohit Kumar tracked down and made a clean tackle in his own penalty area.
Of course, had Sahal Abdul Samad not scored in the 16th minute after Naorem found him with a pass, things might have turned out differently. But India’s lack of finesse in the front third of the field meant that more possession of the ball did not lead to anything meaningful. We didn’t have much going for us in the first half, Chhetri said in the post-match flash interview.
But there were signs of things to come. A long ball from Sandhu for Mishra followed a neat combination play by the left guard and Mahesh and led to a free kick. In Brandon Fernandes’ absence, the responsibility for free kicks seemed to rest with Chhetri, though it would have been better if he had left it to, say, Anirudh Thapa and taken a position within six yards. Twice Udanta Singh took the lead, but failed to deliver the final ball.
As in the Intercontinental Cup final, India got things going in the second half. Samad began to find passes that he had not been successful before; it was his ball that reached Mahesh and became the first goal in the 62nd minute. The emergence of Jixon Singh and Lallianzual Chhangte also increased the pressure on Nepal.
In Bhubaneswar, it was Chhangte who found Chhetri, assisting him from the right. In Bengaluru it was done by Naorem, who broke through on the left and found Chhetri with his passthree.with his wife in the stands, Chhetri stabbed at home. A strong solo pass from Samad helped make the score 2-0 after a pass from Chhetri, whose shot Nepalese goalkeeper Kiran Limbu beat off into a horizontal position. Naorem was there to finish it off. With his hands up, the Manipur midfielder soon found himself in the orange embrace.