|Arnab Mondal vies for the ball with Ali Ashfaq, in Kathmandu, on Monday
Calcutta/ Kathmandu: Young stopper Arnab Mondal scored his maiden international goal as defending champions India beat the Maldives 1-0 to enter the final of the SAFF Football Championship for the ninth time in Kathmandu on Monday.
The win, which Wim Koevermans’ boys achieved without their skipper Sunil Chhetri, meant that India made it to their fifth successive final in the tournament and will meet Afghanistan in the final on Wednesday.
Mondal, the lad from Behala, was a bundle of nerves throughout the match but turned out to be an unlikely hero in the end with a delightful strike.
The winner came in the 85th minute, when Mehtab Hossain’s corner from the right flank was neatly headed down by Syed Rahim Nabi and Mondal, who had joined the attack, struck a powerful angular right-footer that crashed into the net.
The final whistle saw some ugly scenes as Maldives substitute Ali Umar attacked referee Idham Mohammed and was red-carded after the match. But that did not stop the violence, and a group of Maldives players attacked one of the organisers and police personnel were called tackle the situation.
Maldives’ striker Ali Ashfaq was tied down for most part of the match with India employing zonal marking with makeshift captain Gouramangi Singh giving a good account of himself. The Maldives created a bit of pressure from set-piece movements, giving some anxious moments to Indian custodian Subrata Paul.
In the second minute, they got a free-kick and Mohammed Sifan’s low delivery which evaded the wall saw Paul fumble trying to gather it on the bounce but forward Mohammed Umair’s shot went straight to the goalie.
Another anxious moment came in the 27th minute when Ashfaq’s left-footed inswinging free-kick was nicely parried away by Paul.
It was a goalless first half but India played with some intent unlike their horrible show against Nepal. Jeje Lalpeklhua, operating from wide left, tried to make inroads while Arata Izumi, in central midfield, worked tirelessly helping in build ups and acting as a snatcher also.
Playing with a single striker in Robin Singh meant that he was mostly left alone upfront as Indians could not penetrate in the opposition's 18-yard box too many times.
The Indian team’s strategy of employing rough tactics against opposition dangerman Ashfaq worked partially as he did not get enough room to manoeuvre. The Indians had a nice build up in the 42nd minute with Francis Fernandes delivering a defence splitting pass to Robin Singh who in turn kept it for Arata. The Japanese-born Indian set up a sitter for Mehtab Hossain who was, however, way off the target.
The Indians started with lot more purpose in the second half as Francis dodged past two defenders but his feeble shot did not pose any problem for the Maldives goalkeeper.
Maldives tried to hit back on the counter in the 55th minute with Ashfaq penetrating through the left but Gouramangi timed his sliding tackle to perfection to avert danger. In between there were a couple of cracks at the Indian goal but Paul was equal to the task.