Star striker Sunil Chhetri struck twice in the second half as India notched up a 2-0 win over Nepal in a dominating display in the first leg of their 2018 FIFA World Cup football qualifying round one on Thursday.
Thursday’s win at the Indira Gandhi Athletics Stadium at Sajusarai here gave newly appointed India head coach Stephen Constantine a winning start in his second stint at the helm of affairs.
Chhetri scored in the 53rd and 69th minutes though he failed to complete a hat-trict as he muffed a spot kick in the 80th minute. A 3-0 verdict would have put India in an even better position when they play the second leg in Kathmandu on March 17 for a second round berth in the qualification.
It was a memorable performance from Chhetri, who used to wear the captain’s armband for the last couple of years but playing as deputy to Subrata Paul on Thursday, as he was in the thick of things most of the time in several chances India had in the match.
The visitors did not get a clear scoring chance in the entire match though they had a couple of half chances.
Hours before the start of the match, the Indian team slumped to yet another historical low of 173rd in the latest FIFA rankings but they dictated terms on the Nepalese side who also dropped to 180th.
The first goal came after a fine buildup by Lenny Rodrigues, Chhetri and his Bengaluru FC strike partner Robin Singh. The trio’s combination hoodwinked Nepal defence and the move got what it deserved — a perfect finish from Chhetri.
The second was equally better as debutant Jackichand Singh unselfishly laid it for Chhetri to fire in.
After a slow start, India found their groove midway into the first session and from then onwards, Constantine’s boys just ran away with it.
India first had a shy at the rival goal in the 11th minute when an one-two between Chhetri and his Bengaluru FC strike partner Robin opened up the Nepal defence but Robin’s shot could not trouble goalkeeper Limbu Kiran.
Robin was again in the thick of action in the 34th and the 35th minutes respectively. On the first occasion, he latched on to a ball played just behind the defence but his rasping left footer went agonisingly over.
The very next minute, Lalrindika Ralte’s perfectly essayed floater found Robin in the clear and even as on onrushing Limbu tried to narrow the angle, the Indian striker’s placement just went wide.
The Chhetri-Robin combine was slowly starting to bloom by then. In the 41st minute, Chhetri collected, shielded and found Robin but only for the latter’s shot to be deflected for a corner off which Arnab Mondal’s header sailed over.
The best chance of the first session went abegging at the stroke of half-time. Chhetri, blessed with that split extra second with the ball, found an overlapping Francis after a
one-two with Robin to get himself all in the clear but Limbu managed to save his placement from pointblank range.
In the 52rd minute, Nepal survived when Chhetri’s volley from the top of the box got stuck in between an out of position Limbu’s legs. Thereafter, it was all one-way traffic.
The quick interchanging, speedy counters and pressing proved too hot for Nepal.
Chhetri struck the first goal off his left foot to the left corner of goalkeeper Limbu and the second off his right foot to the right corner of the net. Had not an acrobatic Limbu thwarted Chhetri off the spot after Cavin Lobo was brought down in the box by Sandip Rai, and had Jackichand Singh’s goal been disallowed for off-side, it could have been much worse for Nepal.
As many as five Indians made their international debuts with defenders Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan and Saumik Dey and midfielder Eugeneson Lyngdoh making it to the starting line-up while Jackichand Singh coming in as a substitute in the 57th minute.