India leave it late against Afghanistan with Sahal Abdul Samad the hero

Sahal Abdul Samad’s injury-time goal secured all three points for the Blue Tigers

India won a thrilling encounter against Afghanistan by a 2-1 margin on the second matchday of the 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers. Sunil Chhetri and Sahal Abdul Samad scored for the Blue Tigers, while for the Lions of Khorasan, Zohib Islam Amiri was on the scoresheet.

Following the 2-1 defeat against Hong Kong, Afghanistan’s coach Anoush Dastgir made wholesale changes to his name. Faisal Hamidi, Amiri, Faysal Shayesteh, Milad Intezar and Mustafa Zazai were all given a chance in the starting XI, whilst Ovays Azizi, Najim Haidary, Omid Popalzay, Zelfy Nazary and Moshtaq Ahmadi were dropped to the bench.

On the other hand, Igor Stimac made a couple of changes to the Indian starting XI. Kerala Blasters’ Jeakson Singh and Bengaluru’s Ashique Kuruniyan were included in the team at the expense of Anirudh Thapa and Ashique Kuruniyan.

The Blue Tigers had a bright start to the game, with Kuruniyan and Manvir Singh looking menacing down the flanks. However, they did produce any clear-cut openings, and India’s shot at glory came in the 12th minute, courtesy of a freekick. Liston Colaco’s attempt had the necessary power, but not the dip to keep it on target.

India got an even better chance four minutes later, from another setpiece situation. Roshan Naorem delivered an inch-perfect corner which found Jeakson completely unmarked, but the youngster failed to keep his header on target.

Just before half-time, Colaco claimed he was brought down inside the box and appealed for a penalty, but his prayers fell on deaf ears. In the 36th minute, Roshan himself tried to pull the trigger but failed to beat the Afghan custodian, Faisal.

The hosts had two more chances in the first half. The first fell to Jeakson, who found himself at the receiving end of a sublime cutback from Manvir Singh. The opportunity demanded a first-time shot, but the Manipuri lad tried to wiggle his way around a host of red shirts, ultimately ruining the opportunity. Just before the lemon break, skipper Chhetri went for an acrobatic overhead kick, but he could not get the proper connection.

The second half started pretty much like the first, with Stimac’s team dominating proceedings. In the 50th minute, Manvir laid off a header to find Chhetri unmarked, but the latter could not utilize the opportunity.

After not doing much for about an hour, Afghanistan got a gilt-edged chance in the 63rd minute. Popalzay found striker Omran Haydary unmarked with a precise cross, but the Lechia Gdansk player could not keep his header on target.

Seven minutes later, Kuruniyan let fly a brilliant shot which left Faisal stranded but missed the target by a whisker. The visitors had yet another fantastic opportunity when Zazai found Omid Musawi inside the box with a cross. The young striker did well to get a proper connection on his volley, but Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was alert under the sticks to avert the danger.

Sunil Chhetri opened the scoring for India with an exquisite freekick

Sunil Chhetri opened the scoring for India with an exquisite freekick

It turned out to be a costly miss for Afghanistan, as the Blue Tigers eventually broke the deadlock in the 86th minute. Zazai brought down Kuruniyan in a dangerous position, and India’s inspirational leader, Chhetri came to the rescue of the team yet again, by netting home an exquisite free-kick.

Many would have thought the game to be done and dusted at that point, and Stimac’s men were brought back to reality only a couple of minutes later. A corner found Amiri completely unmarked at the front post, and the former Mohun Bagan player made no mistake in placing his header past the former East Bengal goalkeeper.

However, his goal did not matter much in the grand scheme of things, as India spectacularly found the winner in the 91st minute. Kuruniyan laid off a pass for substitute Samad and the Kerala Blasters midfielder brilliantly placed his shot past a diving Faisal. The hosts could have scored their third just before the full-time whistle when Brandon Fernandes went for a long ranger, but Faisal was alert this time around.

Despite the win, India has dropped the second position in Group D, owing to their inferior goal difference as compared to table-toppers Hong Kong. Their next match is against Hong Kong itself, while for third place Afghanistan, they will have a chance of salvaging lost pride by beating Cambodia. Both matches will be played on Tuesday at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata.