Masterminded superbly by ace striker Sunil Chhetri, a dominant India scripted a sensational 4-1 win over higher-ranked Puerto Rico in an international football friendly at the Andheri Sports Complex stadium in Mumbai.
India were down 0-1 in the seventh minute with Emmanuel Sanchez scoring off a spot-kick award, but the hosts went on to dominate the visitors, ranked 38 places above them, with some slick passing and quick attacking moves.
India, who led 3-1 at the half-way stage, scored their goals through Narayan Das (18th minute), Chhetri (26th), Jeje Lalpekhlua (34th) and Jackichand Singh (58th).
Chhetri, who had given away his captain’s armband to Norway-based towering custodian Gurpreet Singh Sandhu for this game, paved the way for two goals and also struck once to emerge as the star player for the home country.
This was India’s fourth straight victory after the 1-2 loss to Turkmenistan in the World Cup qualifier in Kochi in March early this year. They had got past Laos 6-1 and 1-0 in the Asia Cup qualifiers in June and then drubbed Bhutan 3-0 last month in another international friendly.
India have not beaten higher-ranked teams often in the past and had even lost 1-2 to Afghanistan in the SAFF Cup in Kochi in January.
This victory, albeit against a none-too-strong-looking Puerto Rico side, which had arrived here only last evening and clearly looked tired after their long journey, thus must have pleased national coach Stephen Constantine who included several youngsters to prop up the team.
India, in fact, started the match –- the first in Mumbai after six decades — on the wrong foot by conceding a penalty in the seventh minute when Elliot Velez was brought down on the left of the area by Jackichand Singh.
The spot-kick was put in by the tall medio Sanchez who beat Indian custodian and match skipper Gurpreet to bulge the bottom right corner of the goal.
This early reversal galvanized the hosts, ranked 152 as compared to their rivals’ 114, into an attacking mode and they started attacking with gusto with the midfield prompting the two front-liners with down-the-middle passes.
The hosts could have equalised in the 12th minute but for the rival goalkeeper rushing out and foiling Chhetri before he could take advantage of a fine through ball from Eugeneson Lyngdoh.
The hosts then started dominating the proceedings and got rich rewards when they scored twice with the help of free kicks with Chhetri playing a stellar role in both these strikes.
A free-kick was awarded just outside the penalty area following the hacking down of medio Bikash Jairu by a rival defender.
Chhetri curled the free kick around the “wall” only to hit the left post, but defender Narayan Das, lurking nearby, pounced on the rebound and struck home, finding the right corner of the goal.
Six minutes later another free-kick award was given to the home team when Chhetri was brought down by Emmanuel D’Andrea.
India’s leading international goal-getter was once again able to curl the ball around the wall, once again to find the post.
But on this occasion the ball struck the inside of the woodwork and then went in much to the delight of the crowd of around 7,000 fans rooting for the Indian team vociferously as suddenly India were 2-1 up.
It could have been 3-1 for India in the 32nd minute had Jeje not ballooned his shot from inside the area over the post after being fed superbly by Jackichand Singh.
However, luck and some poor defending by Puerto Rico smiled on the Indians as a high cross from Pritam Kotal was headed towards Jeje by Chhetri and the 25-year-old from Mizoram made no mistake with a simple header from an unmarked position very close to the rival goal.
Jeje could have put his side to an even more commanding 4-1 lead just before the half time whistle after once again finding himself in an unmarked position, but his angular shot was deflected wide in time by rival goalkeeper Johny Santana with his outstretched left foot.
Changing ends, India widened the lead after surviving a close shave when Puerto Rican midfielder Micheal Ramos struck the post with a powerful shot on the run.
The 4-1 cushion was provided by the diminutive livewire Jackichand who blasted into the underneath of the cross piece before his shot went in. He got hold of a misdirected header from Lyngdoh before connecting the volley home.
Sitting pretty with a 4-1 lead, India almost conceded a goal but the woodwork came to their rescue again to foil Sanchez’s powerful shot.
Both teams had their chances to score in the remaining time, but neither could score any more goals and the home crowd trooped off happy after witnessing the first big game at this new venue in the western suburbs.