Skipper Sunil Chhetri struck in extra time as India staged a superb comeback to claim their seventh SAFF Championship title by defeating a spirited Afghanistan 2-1 in a hard-fought final at the Trivandrum International Stadium on Sunday.
Chhetri (101st minute) scored the decisive goal for India when he capitalised on a defensive lapse by the visitors in the first half of extra time.
Earlier, the two teams were locked 1-1 after the regulation 90 minutes in a match which saw fast, end to end action with plenty of chances at both ends.
Zubayr Amiri (70th) put Afghanistan in front before Jeje Lalpekhlua (72nd) put India back in the game, and then Chhetri finally sealed the matter.
The Indians thus avenged their 2-0 loss to the defending champions in the final of the last edition in Katmandu in 2013.
The best chance of the first half fell to Jeje in the 14th minute.
Jeje’s header on the rebound came off the crossbar, and he hit the crossbar again in the 56th minute with a powerful shot from outside the box.
The Afghanistan strike force comprising captain Faysal Shayesteh, left winger Noraollah Amiri and right winger Mustafa Zazai caused the hosts plenty of problems throughout the match.
Jeje hit back for India only a couple of minutes later. Narzary’s accurate cross into the box from the right flank found Chhetri who headed it for Jeje to slot it into the net.
In the 87th minute, Azizi did well to dive to to his left to punch out a curling freekick from Chhetri which seemed destined for the top corner as the match rolled into extra-time.
Chhetri finally clinched the issue for India when the hosts when Sayed Hashemi fluffed his attempt to clear a free kick from the midfield.
Chhetri pounced on the loose ball and did well to ward off the attention of Masih Saighani and Azizi before slotting home.
Bikas Jairu could have increased India’s lead only a couple of minutes later when he left the Afghans flat-footed with a speedy run down the left flank before cutting into the penalty box. But his shot missed the far post by mere inches.
The closing stages saw plenty of drama and even some controversy as the desparate Afghans pressed for the equaliser.
The visitors were unlucky not be awarded a penalty when a shot from the edge of the box struck the hand of Indian defender Arnab Mondal.
The Afghan players appealed for a penalty which was turned down by the referee.
The incident prompted an agitated Afghan coach Petar Segr to rush into the field in protest and was red-carded by the referee.
The Afghans had another penalty appeal turned down in injury time. Faysal played pass for Ahmad Hatifie who was brought down inside the box by Jairu.
But the referee turned down the impassioned pleas of the Afghan players as the partisan home crowd heaved a collective sigh of relief.