| Syed Rahim Nabi tries a back-volley against Nepal, on Thursday |
Calcutta/ Kathmandu: Defending champions India dished out yet another lacklustre performance to go down 1-2 against hosts Nepal but still managed to make it to the semi-finals of the SAFF Championships, in Kathmandu, on Thursday.
The six-time champions were clearly the inferior side in their last Group A match at the packed Dasarath Stadium and they were lucky to make it to the last-four stage after Pakistan beat Bangladesh 2-1 in another match.
For Nepal, who were cheered by a vociferous home crowd, Anil Gurung and Jumanu Rai scored in the 70th and 81st minutes while Syed Rahim Nabi pulled one back for India in the 92nd minute with an impressive side volley. Nabi met Jewel Raja’s centre from the right.
India and Pakistan ended on four points behind Group A toppers Nepal — who garnered seven points from two wins and one draw — but Wim Koevermans’ men qualified for the semifinals as group runners-up having beaten Pakistan in the head-to-head encounter.
A lucky India had beaten Pakistan 1-0 in their campaign opener thanks to an own goal by their rival skipper before escaping with a 1-1 draw against Bangladesh with captain Sunil Chetri scoring an injury-time equaliser.
According to tournament rules, if two teams are on equal points in the group stage, head-to-head result will first decide which team will go through to the next stage and goal difference comes to play only after this.
In case of India, since they have beaten Pakistan earlier, there is no need to look at goal difference.
“We knew Nepal were a very good team. They were quick and have some very good quality players. They did threaten us but didn’t have clear chances in the first half,” India coach Wim Koevermans said at the post-match media conference.
“In the second half, we kicked long and it was easy for them to defend. I want to congratulate Nepal on their victory but at the same time, it was our aim to advance to the semis which we eventually did,” he added.
“Players need to follow a plan but it didn’t really happen. We look forward to play the fourth final,” said coach.
The first goal was a result of set-piece movement that sent the Indian defence in a disarray. In the 70th minute, Sandeep Rai floated a cross-field ball and in the melee, Indian custodian Subrata Paul charged out.
Biraj Maharajan beat his marker Mondal to head the delivery which hit the horizontal and Gurung, lurking around, just tapped home to give his team 1-0 lead.
The Indian defenders, especially Nirmal, couldn’t match up to the speed of left-winger from Nepal, Rabin Shreshta who set up the second goal in the 81st minute.
He overlapped down the wide left beating Nirmal and then kept a low cross which saw Jumanu evade Mondal to place an accurate angular left footer that went into the far corner of the net after beating Paul.
India, however, pulled one back at the stroke of final whistle when Jewel Raja Shiekh hoodwinked one of the Nepalese sidebacks with an outside dodge and essayed a centre which saw Nabi find the net with an airborne side volley.
India were dealt a telling blow as skipper Chetri, who is having a horrible tournament, will remain suspended for the semi-final after picking up his second yellow card on the day. Robin Singh is expected to start.