India wins SAFF Championship title

This was the first time that India defeated two West Asian countries in back-to-back matches, after winning the semi-final against Lebanon, also on penalties…reports Asian Lite News

Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was the hero once again as India defeated Kuwait 5-4 via sudden death penalties in the final to defend the SAFF Championship title at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium here on Tuesday.

The win added another chapter to India’s glorious history in the SAFF Championship as the Blue Tigers created football history to win the Bangabandhu SAFF Championship 2023 title. This was a record-extending ninth title triumph for India in the SAFF Championship and what makes it sweeter is that in the process, India defeated both the guest teams — Lebanon in the semifinals and Kuwait in the final.

In the summit clash of what was the biggest and most competitive SAFF Championship ever, Sandhu’s winning save etched India’s ninth sub-continental title, adding another chapter to the nation’s regional supremacy. The game ended 1-1 after 120 minutes; Shabaib Al-Khaldi had put Kuwait in front early on, and newly-crowned AIFF Player of the Year Lallianzuala Chhangte equalised later in the first half.

With this win, Igor Stimac becomes the first foreign head coach to win back-to-back SAFF Championship titles. This was also the first time that India defeated two West Asian countries in back-to-back matches, after winning the semi-final against Lebanon, also on penalties.

It was a cautious start to the game, with both sides trying to keep hold of the ball and build from the back. India registered the first shot on target, a rather weak one as Lallianzuala Chhangte’s header from an Akash Mishra cross fell straight into the gloves of Abdulrahman Marzouq.

Kuwait took the lead with a meticulously-crafted move in the final third. Mobarak Al-Faneeni sprayed the ball to right-back Abdullah Al-Bloushi, whose cutback was slotted into the net by an unmarked Shabaib Al-Khaldi right outside the six-yard box.

The hosts, not feeling let down one bit fed on the thunderous support of the capacity crowd almost equalised in the very next minute. Chhangte’s powerful left-footed strike from the edge of the box was saved by Marzouq before Chhetri rushed in to meet the rebound, but Khaled Hajiah cleared it away.

That chance sparked off the Indian front line, and the cautiousness of the beginning gave way to an all-out attack. However, both sides suffered setbacks in defence as Hasan Al-Enezi and Anwar Ali had to be substituted due to injuries. The Indian suffered a blow to his hamstring and was replaced by Mehtab Singh.

If Kuwait’s opener was a proper team effort, India bettered it with an even more silky smooth goal for the equaliser. After Ashique Kuruniyan was allowed time on the ball on the left, he picked out Sunil Chhetri, who in turn, spotted Sahal Abdul Samad’s run into the box and played him through with a first-time pass. The midfielder laid it for Chhangte across the face of the goal, who tapped it in with the gaping goal in front of him.

The two teams made many attempts but could not find the net. Semi-final hero Gurpreet came to India’s rescue again in the dying minutes of the second half, diving low at his near post to push out Abdullah’s right-footed shot.

Immediately, on the other end, Kuwait had two close shaves. Mahesh found Rohit Kumar on the overlap, whose cutback fell just behind Chhetri and into no man’s land. Just before the full-time whistle, Chhangte found Udanta in the box, who slipped before the loose ball fell for Chhetri, but the skipper could only fire over.

The trend continued in the extra time as both sides created opportunities but could not find the back of the net.

It came down to the dreaded penalty shootout in the end, the second in a row for India in the 2023 SAFF Championship, after having defeated Lebanon from the 12-yard spot.

Chhetri, Jhingan, Chhangte, and Subhasish scored for India, while Al-Otaibi, Al-Dhefeery, Mahran, and Al-Khaldi netted their respective penalties for Kuwait. For India, Udanta was the only unsuccessful penalty taker, sending his spot-kick over the cross-bar, while Abdullah hit the woodwork from his kick for Kuwait.

Sandhu was the hero of the night, as he saved the last penalty of the SAFF Championship final by Kuwait captain Haijah, to win India their ninth title.

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