India cements a place in the SAFF Cup final after defeating Lebanon on penalties

Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s astounding goalkeeping skills became the fuel of India’s semi-final triumph over Lebanon

The second semifinal of the SAFF Championships between India and Lebanon was full of physicality and hardship as the fixture found its conclusion in penalties. Despite the absence of Igor Stimac, the Blue Tigers managed to keep a perfect record in the shootout and overcome Lebanon to reach the final. 

Following a couple of clean sheets against Lebanon in the recent fixtures, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was the first choice for the match in the nets. Several changes were seen in the backline as Subhashish Bose, Pritam Kotal, and Mehtab Singh were added to the squad alongside Anwar Ali. 

In the midfield, Anirudh Thapa, Lallianzuala Chhangte, and Jeakson Singh were authoritative while Sahal Abdul Samad was given the chance to start in the place of Mahesh Singh as the creator-in-chief. No changes were made in the frontline as Sunil Chettri and Ashique Kuruniyan were leading the pack. 

On the other side, Kuwait also made a couple of changes with the hopes of defeating India. Their starting line-up was – Mehdi Khalil, Hassan Maatouk, Mahdi Zein, Hussein Zein, Ali Markabawi, Hasan Srour, George Felix Melki, Nader Matar, Mouhammed Ali Dhaini, Walid Shour, Zein Al Abidine Farran. 

The match got underway with Lebanon having the possession and effectively using the ball, they tried making a chance in the very first minute of the match. However, the shot went wide away from the goal. 

As the Blue Tigers got possession, a change in formation was witnessed as they were playing with a three-man defense. In the 8th minute, the first decent shot of the match was seen as Zein Farran tried to find a breakthrough, but Gurpreet Singh Sandhu got an upper hand over the attacker. 

Trying to hold the game, Mehtab Singh got booked in the ninth minute. In the initial five 15 minutes, the visitors were dominating the match utterly. However, a combined effort from Sahal Abdul Samad and Jeakson Singh helped Sunil Chettri get the ball in a dangerous position but Ali Dhanini managed to intercept at the right time. A new spirit was visible in the Blue Tigers as they were making clinical chances consistently, but all the set pieces were going in vain. 

In the 27th minute, Ali Markabawi saw a yellow card after he tackled Sahal Abdul Samad. A couple of shots were taken by Indian players before Maatouk’s free-kick was saved by Gurpreet Singh in the 31st minute. 

The visitors again started dominating the match as Indian defenders looked helpless but Sandhu was standing strong as the wall for the Blue Tigers. A highly physical game was being demonstrated at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium as consistent fouls were being recorded on the ground. 

Thus, in the 40th minute, Anirudh Thapa got a massive chance of scoring but Walid Shour made an eminent clearance at the right time. As the first half was about to end, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu made another breathtaking save to keep the scoreline equal. The first half portrayed the attacking mentality of the visitors against India.

In the second half, the Blue Tigers started playing on long shots as the ball was getting circulated continuously in the back four. In the 53rd minute, another booking was witnessed as Walid Shour was shown the yellow card. 

Thus, to fuel the battle of tactics, fresh legs were introduced in the match as Nikhil Poojary and Karim Darwich came inside the ground for their respective sides. India’s defense looked unfocused while their attackers were not able to get back the defensive duo of Lebanon.

India and Lebanon have faced each three thrice in the last two weeks

Thus, the Blue Tigers were majorly attacking from the set pieces and the approach wasn’t working. The second half was again full of physicality from one side to another. However, in the 72nd minute, Ashique Kuruniyan made an astounding cross for the Indian skipper, but George Melki denied the slight possibility of getting the deadlock broken as the absence of Igor Stimac was somehow haunting the Indian team. In the 74th minute, Rohit Kumar, Akash Mishra, and Mahesh Singh were introduced to the play. 

Following a couple of formational changes, the Blue Tigers eventually got in the classic and versatile 4-4-2 to get their flanks working, with Chettri and Mahesh in the lead. However, regardless of the chances, Farran and Maatouk’s one-on-one play dismantled the Indian defense to break into the Indian box in the 83rd minute, but Sandhu again came to the rescue. Five minutes were added as the injury time as Udanta Singh was brought in in place of Ashique Kuruniyan. As the final whistle was blown, Karim Darwich was also booked. 

Thus, with 0-0, after a small rest, the match was forced into extra time. As the first half got underway, despite already being on the ground for 90 minutes, Chettri looked energetic as he took a brilliant shot on target which was punched out by Khalil. 

The Blue Tigers were looking dominant in the extra time as Udanta and Chettri’s chemistry was visible. Thus, the first half of the extra time also ended 0-0. The second half of the extra time witnessed a lot of desperate attempts of scoring solidified by the defensive prowess of both sides. 

Despite seeing a lot of disappointment in the play of 120 minutes, the fans were supporting their side with sheer enthusiasm. Thus, a final change in the cards, Ali Sabeh replaced Mehdi Khalil in the nets for penalties. Thus, the match then went into the penalties and spectators were watching the shootout with their hearts in their palms. 

India’s skipper, Sunil Chettri took the first kick and smashed the ball in the right corner. However, Lebanon’s skipper failed to do the similar as Maatouk missed the chance. For the second, Anwar Ali also capitalized and made the score 2-0. Not missing the second and keeping the hopes of the visitors alive, Walid Shour successfully made the score 2-1. Mahesh Singh also gave an example of his elite mentality making it three for India. 

On the flip side, Sadek also didn’t miss making the score 3-2. Udanta Singh kept India’s shootout perfect making it four. But, it wants Lebanon’s night as Bader missed the fourth shot, and India’s place in the final got cemented. Thus, the Blue Tigers will be facing Kuwait in the final of the SAFF Championships without Igor Stimac on their side on Tuesday.