Bengaluru: Sunil Chhetri scored a stunning goal but a late own goal by India helped Kuwait fight back to draw 1-1 in the final Group A clash of the Bangabandhu SAFF Championship 2023 at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium here Tuesday.
In what was a high-tempo and high-tempered contest from start to finish, Sunil Chhetri’s 92nd international goal, a clinical volley put India ahead at the stroke of half-time. They came close but could not add more goals to their tally. However, an unfortunate own goal from Anwar Ali in second-half injury time put a heartbreaking and unfortunate end to India’s hopes of topping the group.
India started off aggressively, suffocating Kuwait with their pressing in the final and middle thirds. Naorem Mahesh Singh, who scored his first international goal in the previous match, was causing all sorts of trouble from the left wing.
In the fifth minute, he picked out Akash Mishra on the overlap and the left-back sent an inviting delivery into the middle which flashed just beyond Sunil Chhetri’s reach.
India threatened with set-pieces in the entire match, and the first chance came from Mahesh’s corner which Kuwait failed to clear and landed for Anwar Ali, whose attempt was feeble and easily blocked on the line.
India’s confrontational approach led to a slight setback in the 14th minute when Sandesh Jhingan’s flying challenge on Eid Al-Rashidi got him booked and suspended for Saturday’s semi-final.
Kuwait gradually grew into the game and got their first real chance in the 20th minute as Shabaib Al-Khaldi drove a loose ball over the crossbar. Five minutes later, Amrinder Singh made a terrific save to keep out Mohammad Abdullah’s shot from close range after a clever pass from Al-Khaldi.
India looked increasingly dangerous from dead-ball situations, and while Kuwait breathed a sigh of relief when Anwar headed wide from a Thapa corner, Chhetri ensured that wouldn’t be the case the next time of asking.
Moments before half-time, facing another Thapa corner, the captain, almost hiding in plain sight against Kuwait’s zonal marking, cleanly nestled the ball into the back of the net with a side-footed volley from 12 yards out. One chance is all it took for Sunil Chhetri to put India ahead.
Expectedly, Kuwait came out with plenty of urgency after the break, and although Rui Bento’s side was allowed to see more of the ball, India remained their dominant selves in the defensive third. In the 57th minute, Al-Khaldi’s free-kick was brilliantly tipped over by Amrinder.
The attack is the best form of defence, and as clichéd as it sounds, that’s how Igor Stimac’s men operated for large parts of the second half. Mahesh, who had switched positions with Lallianzuala Chhangte after the restart, whipped a high cross from the right which fell for Ashique Kuruniyan, who blasted a volley just over the bar from a tight angle.
Jeakson Singh Thounaojam then had India’s next couple of chances. First, he saw his attempt blocked by Sultan Al-Enezi before heading Chhangte’s cross wide from the resulting corner.
Jhingan yet again highlighted India’s defensive prowess with a crunching tackle on Al-Khaldi who was sent clean through on goal. The Kanteerava showered its appreciation with loud chants for the 29-year-old.
Right as the game entered the final ten minutes, Stimac was shown a red card after an argument with referee Alomgir, the Croatian’s second sending-off of the tournament.
Substitute Rohit Kumar had a glorious opportunity to cement the win for the Blue Tigers but could only sky Udanta’s low cross from just outside the six-yard box.
Amrinder added another strong save to his solid performance in goal as he pushed away a fierce left-footed strike from Al-Khaldi in the 84th minute.
Tempers continued to flare after Stimac’s sending off after Sahal Abdul Samad was fouled in the Kuwait half and the West Asians prevented a quick restart, resulting in a scuffle, after which Hamad Al-Qallaf and Rahim Ali were shown red.
However, it was to be a cruel end to India’s seven-match clean-sheet run. Abdullah Al-Bloushi’s harmless-looking cross from the right deflected into the Indian net as Anwar Ali tried to hook it clear.
While scenes on the pitch were unfortunate, the Kanteerava crowd made sure to keep the Blue Tigers’ heads high, chanting the loudest they had the entire night to demonstrate how proud they were of their team which fought until the end but were unlucky not to get it.