India kicked off their title defense of the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship campaign against their South-Asian neighbours, Pakistan at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium with a resounding 4-0 victory in a performance that saw the Men in Blue dominate throughout the proceedings. A hattrick from the Men in Blue’s electric captain, Sunil Chhetri and a late dagger from Udanta Singh saw the scoreline reflect an utterly dominant performance from the Indian team even with the drama of their coach, Igor Stimac being sent to the dressing room early with a red card in the 45th minute.
The starting eleven announced by Stimac featured no surprises as the team made a strong start to the match with Sandesh Jhingan sending in a cross in the 2nd minute that was met by Chhetri who could not keep it on target. It was a nervy start from the Pakistan goalkeeper Saqib Hanif who gave the ball away straight to Chhetri in the 8th minute. The Men in Blue’s talisman took a couple of steps before dispatching a long-range effort that took a deflection and forced Hanif into making a save.
The pressure of the match proved to be too much for Hanif as just a couple of minutes later he botched his attempt to send the ball long and this time Chhetri pounced on it and slotted away his goal number 88 for India in the 11th minute. The Men in Blue were relentless and poured misery on Pakistan once again as their block on Anirudh Thapa’s shot from just inside the box was judged by the referee to have hit the hand and subsequently, a penalty was awarded to the Blues.
Chhetri made no mistake from the spot as he powered his penalty to the left of Hanif to double India’s advantage in the 15th minute. The hosts continued the half in a similar fashion as Pakistan struggled to contain the barrage of attacks being thrown at them. A lofted ball in the 21st minute saw Lallianzuala Chhangte 1v1 against Iqbal. Still, the Pakistan defender timed his tackle well to ensure that the threat did not add to India’s goal tally.
The Pakistan attack was hardly of any concern for the Indian goalkeeper as they struggled to create chances. They struggled to contain the long balls being attempted in the downpour of Kanteerava Stadium. Pritam Kotal and Chhangte connected well on the right-hand side as their quick passes between themselves often had the Pakistan defense on strings. They played an excellent one-two that sent Kotal near the away line. He sent the ball in back for Chhangte who turned 180 degrees to pull a shot off forcing Hanif into another save.
The match was not without drama as chaos erupted in the 45th minute when Stimac blocked a throw-in for Pakistan. Both teams rushed to the bylines as the tensions flared high. The heated confrontation ended with the host’s coach being sent off and the Pakistani coach, Shahzad Anwar, being shown a yellow.
The Men in Blue did not allow the debacle at the end of the first half to dampen their spirits as they picked up the 2nd half from where they left off. The relentless Indian attack was missing the third goal and India came awfully close in the 67th minute when Chhangte sent in an inch-perfect delivery from a free-kick near the half-line. The ball met Jeakson Singh’s head and rattled the crossbar before Hanif punched it out for a corner.
India got the opportunity to strike for the third time finally when Chhetri was pushed to the ground in the opposition box in the 73rd minute by Muhammad Sufyan. The Men in Blue’s captain etched history with the hat trick that saw him record 90 goals for the Bluesas he dispatched the penalty in the top left corner of Hanif’s goal.
The hosts got the cherry on the icing when substitute Udanta Singh brought down a superb long ball from Anwar Ali and slotted it into the net in the 81st minute. The scoreline finally reflected an acceptable portrayal of the performance from every facet of the Indian team on the night.
The rock-solid Blues defense did not allow Pakistan a single shot on goal as they recorded a consecutive 7th clean sheet for the first time in their history. This commanding victory to mark their start in the SAFF Championship will inspire the Indian team as they set their sights on the 2023 edition of the AFC Asian Cup following the conclusion of this tournament.
India face Nepal next on 24th June as Pakistan takes on Kuwait on the same day.
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