India thru' to semis
A first-half strike from Jibon Singh took India to the semifinals of Bangabandhu SAFF Championship with a lone-goal win over a spirited Nepal in a Group A encounter at the Bangabandhu National Stadium yesterday.
With two successive wins, India raised their tally to six, two points above holders Maldives and three more than Nepal, who now face winless Afghanistan on Wednesday. Maldives are in pole position to qualify for semifinals as the second team from this group as they just need a draw against India on the same day.
Bangladesh face Sri Lanka today in a crucial Group B encounter.
Back to the match, Nepal put up another spirited show against three-time champions India, but they were not lucky enough to restore parity after Jibon gave India an 18-minute lead that almost killed Nepal's hopes of qualifying for the last four.
Nepal, who might have taken inspiration from their fighting 1-1 draw against Maldives, dominated the match from the word go, but at the end, it was Indian goalkeeper Arindam Bhattachrja, who was solid under the goalpost foiling several attacks from the Nepalese striking duo Ju Manu Rai and Anil Gurung.
India, under tremendous pressure, opted to go for counterattack and came out successfully in their first attempt when Nepal defender Biraj Maharjan brought Balwant Singh down on the edge of the box to award a freekick.
Jibon Singh let loose a powerful left-footer that forced Nepal goalkeeper Bikash Mallah to fist it and the ball struck the crossbar before Jibon, already in position inside the box, headed the follow-up home to give India the lead in the 18th minute against the run of play.
After going down, Nepal intensified their attack and came close twice to equalising the margin, but both efforts from Anil and Ju Manu went wide of the crossbar on the half-way mark.
With seven minutes remaining for the lemon break, India came close to increasing the margin when Sushil almost headed home only to be blocked by defender Anjan KC from the goalline.
Nepal brought one change in each half to sharpen their attack and it eventually had a good impact as they unsettled the India backline, but eventually failed to create any scoring chances.
India coach Sukhwinder Singh praised the spirited show from Nepal and thought that the match was even.
"It was a tough match. Even though we yielded a couple of good chances and availed one of them and finally came out victorious," said Singh at the post-match briefing.
Singh also admitted they were forced to go on the backfoot in the face of several moves from the opponents and praised his boys at defending their margin well till the end.
Nepal coach Krisna Thapa termed the result as unfortunate.
"It was bad luck for us because we could not open the lock (goals) despite having played better football than India and the goal we conceded was suicidal," said Thapa.
INDIA: Arindam Bhattachrja, Rolando Rodriguez, Baldeep Singh, Balwant Singh (Je Je Lalpekhula), Sushil Kumar, Jao Quim Santan (Subodh Kumar), Jibon Singh Khangembam, Dharmaraj Ravanan, Manish Mathani (Jewel Raja Shaikh), Reberth Lalthlamuana and Denzil Michael Franc.
NEPAL: Bikash Mallah, Biraj Maharjan, Rohit Chand, Bijay Gurung (Yogesh Shrestha), Sandip Rai (Santosh Shahukhala), Anil Gurang, Ju Manu Rai, Anjan KC, Raju Tamang, Sagar Thapa and Chetan Ghimire.
Yellow cards: Jao Quim Santan, Manish Mathani, Arindom (India), Biraj Maharjan and Ju Manu Rai (Nepal).
Referee: Pieres Laksiri (Sri Lanka).