For the first time in history, the Indian men’s football team book their place in back-to-back AFC Asian Cup editions and that too before kicking a ball on the final match day of their qualifier group.
The Blue Tigers have qualified for the AFC Asian Cups in 2019, 2011, 1984, 1964 and now 2023.
But India head coach Igor Stimac decided to go all guns blazing with his team selection, making only two changes to the side that got a 2-1 victory over Afghanistan. Last games’ heroes – Sahal Abdul Samad and Udanta Singh in for Manvir Singh and Liston Colaco.
It was Anwar Ali though, who struck in the opening minute of the night after some terrific build-up play from the likes of Ashique Kuruniyan, Sahal and Udanta. They earned a corner, which pinged around the Hong Kong penalty box, only for Anwar to blast it home for the lead.
At the 15th minute-mark, Yu Wai Lim and Huang Yang combined to take out Udanta. After play resumed, Sahal sent in a ball into the middle for Ashique, who dinked it over the defence as the Hong Kong keeper rushed out to clear off Sunil Chhetri’s head.
It was surely Plan B for Hong Kong, as they started to lay into their tackles. Huang Yang went into the referee’s book after he crashed into Udanta to stop a counter-attack.
In the 26th minute, Jeakson with some sublime skill to get past three defenders, who kept lunging at his feet, and released Roshan down the right.
His cross was missed as Sahal’s thunderous strike rattled the crossbar after Chhetri miss-timed his run. Ashique on the rebound blazed over.
The winds had been howling for some time after the start of the game, but midway through the rain followed.
As India kept searching for the second, with the increasing ferocity of tackles from the Hong Kong players, the heavens opened up.
In added time after the first 45 minutes, Jeakson flighted a ball to the right edge of the six-yard box, which Chhetri brought down from the sky with his right foot and slotted it past the keeper using his left. India were 2-0 up as the fans, though taking shelter from the rain, were delirious with joy. With that strike, Chhetri’s goal tally went up to 84, levelling Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas.
India were on the attack from the word go in the second half as Chhetri tried his luck from distance even though he was bearing down on goal. His shot was parried away for a corner. Then again in the 58th minute, Chhetri’s pull back into the middle was cleared only as far as Glan Martins, who had come on in place of Suresh at the start of the half, blazed over.
As the game dulled into a mid-field stalemate, the fans cheered harder from the stands. When a Chhetri was brought off in the 76th minute, the roar from the crowd drowned out the howl of the whistling winds.
In the 85th Manvir, who had been playing down the right for most of the tournament, found himself in the middle as the ball Brandon Fernandes’ cross inched closer. He did not make a mistake, slotting it home past the hapless keeper to give India their third.
He was instrumental in the fourth too, rushing down the right to send in a pin-point pass at the feet of Ishan Pandita, who made no mistake.
With the win, India clinched the top spot of Group D, with 9 points from three games.