India pipped a spirited Maldives 3-2 to enter the final of the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championships for a record 10th time after in-form Jeje Lalpekhlua struck twice in a thrilling semi-final, on Thursday.
India will meet defending champions Afghanistan – in the final on Sunday – in what will be a replay of 2013 edition in Kathmandu. In the second semifinal, Afghanistan hammered Sri Lanka 5-0.
Once again showing his scoring abilities after an impressive Indian Super League (ISL), Jeje found the net in the 34th and 66th minute after skipper Sunil Chhetri put the hosts ahead with a nod in the 25th minute at the Trivandrum International Stadium.
Ahmed Nashi (45’+2′) and Amdaan Ali (75) were on target for Maldives in a match that was marked by wonderful attacking play and poor defending.
Seeking a record 7th SAFF title, India were on the game from the word go as Chhetri played one to Arnab Mondal whose left-footed shot deflected off Jeje’s feet on its way into the back of the net. However, the 24-year-old Chennaiyin FC striker was ruled off-side.
In the 22nd minute, Holicharan Narzary’s flick off a Eugeneson Lyngdoh corner was cleared just in time by the Maldives’ defence.
India soon broke the deadlock when the country’s all-time leading scorer Chhetri cashed in on a Narzary cross from the right and headed in the ball past the Maldives goalkeeper mran. Before that Lyngdoh’s shot was kept out by the custodian.
There was another chance for India, but Imran kept out Jeje’s attempt before finally giving in when Narzary played one over the Maldives defence to Jeje, who slotted it in past the hapless goalkeeper to make it 2-0 for the home side coached by Stephen Constantine.
160th ranked Maldives looked desperate for a goal and Ahmed Nashid delivered the goods for the visiting side when he made use of a pass from Imaaz, who received the ball from Ali Ashfaq.
Almost certain to improve on their current FIFA ranking of 166 after this win, India were celebrating again as Jeje made it 3-1. Chhetri played one for Jeje inside the box and the Mizo lad dribbled past Amdaan Ali and then Shafiu Ahmed before placing the ball to the goalkeeper’s right.
With a cushion of two goals, Constantine decided to call back Chhetri and brought in the highly promising Chhangte Lallianzuala in the 74th minute. A minute later, Maldives gave themselves hope with a strike through Ali Amdaan, who headed in a corner after outjumping Arnab Mondal.
Even as Maldives desperately tried to look for an equaliser, India, who attacked with flair, held onto the lead to emerge triumphant after two brilliant assists from Narzary.