Nine years ago, Sunil Chhetri scored the goal that took India to the 2011 Asian Cup. On Tuesday, he scored again to take India within touching distance of the 2019 continental championship.
The 32-year-old’s goal proved to be the difference as India gritted out a 1-0 win over fancied Kyrgyzstan in a crucial Asian Cup qualifying match in Bangalore. The victory, second in as many matches, helped India retain the top spot in the Group A of the qualifiers. Top two teams from the group qualify for the Asian Cup and only a debacle of epic proportions will see the team miss out on the event, which will be held in the UAE.
When the groups were drawn for the final round of qualifiers, Kyrgyzstan were seen as India’s toughest opponents because of their high ranking (at the time of the draw) and stature. Some of their key players are either German or Ghana born and play in leagues which are far more superior than the I-League.
The opening exchanges proved why India coach Stephen Constantine labeled Kyrgyzstan as the favourites to win this match. They were quick on and off the ball, sharp and strong. With some better finishing, they could’ve even scored a goal that eluded them entire evening.
It stayed like that for large parts but India, of late, have forged a habit of grinding out results even when they are the second-best on the field. And on most occasions, Chhetri has been the difference. It wasn’t any different on Tuesday. Playing behind Jeje Lalpekhlua, Chhetri was at the heart of almost every move. In the first half, he combined well with Jackiechand Singh, who constantly troubled the Kyrgyz defenders with his pace down the right wing.
But the defining moment came in the 69th minute. India were pushed deep in their own half by the enterprising Kyrgyzstan forwards. Chhetri, who fell back to help the defence, picked up a loose ball near India’s box.
Instead of blindly kicking it forward, as India had been doing all night, the Bengaluru FC striker decided to take on the rival defenders. He ran almost the entire length of the field through the centre, dribbled past three defenders, passed it to Jeje before slipping behind another Kyrgyz defender to make himself available for a return pass.
Jeje played a beautiful lobbed ball that landed at Chhetri’s feet. The captain spectacularly slotted the half-volley past Kyrgyzstan goalkeeper Pavel Matiash. Chhetri could have helped India improve the margin.
In the final minute of the added time, Chhetri himself was on the verge of scoring his second of the night but he also shot over in haste. The 69th minute goal eventually helped the hosts, who had beaten Myanmar 1-0 in their first match of the qualifiers, win their seventh international match on the trot.
But this wasn’t just about Chhetri. ’Keeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was immense under the bar, showing authority and strength seldom seen before from other Indians. He was ably helped by Sandesh Jhingan, who made an excellent goal-line save, and Anas Edathodika, who is playing only his third international match.
With the win, India’s ranking, currently 99, is also set to improve by a couple of places.
But this win isn’t just about the ranking. Constantine’s brief when he was handed contract extension earlier this year was to ensure India qualified for the Asian Cup. Now, they are all but assured of it.