The Indian men’s football team clinched a record ninth SAFF Championship title after beating Kuwait 5-4 in a penalty shootout at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru on Tuesday.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu emerged as the hero as he denied Kuwait’s captain Hajjeia from the spot during sudden death after two teams were locked at 1-1 after 120 minutes of end-to-end action.
Kuwait drew first blood through Shabaib Al Khaldi (14’) but AIFF Player of the Year Lallianzuala Chhangte (39’) scored to erase the deficit and bring India on level terms.
Igor Stimac had to witness the proceedings from the VIP box at the Kanteerava as he was serving a ban. He made three changes to the line-up that started against Lebanon with Sandesh Jhingan, Akash Mishra and Nikhil Poojary coming into action.
Kuwait started with intent and reaped rewards for their effort as Al Feneeni set up Al Khaldi inside the box, with the latter making no mistake to score from close range.
Chhangte was the livewire for India in the attack as he kept testing goalkeeper Mubarak Marzouq with his attempts on goal. In the 39th minute, India equalised after Ashique Kuruniyan won back possession in the Kuwait half. He immediately passed on to Sunil Chhetri who produced a perfectly weighted through ball for Chhangte, who kept his composure to make it 1-1.
The two teams were on an even keel for the bulk of the second half as both got their fair share of opportunities to take the lead but failed to do so. Chhangte and Mohammad Abdhulla could have made a difference for their respective teams but did not make the most of their opportunities.
The match went into extra time with the scores at 1-1. With just two minutes left on the clock, Nikhil Poojary’s curling cross from the right found Chhangte but the forward could only blaze his shot over the crossbar with his weaker right foot.
It all came down to penalty shootout and Abduallh hit the woodwork which sent the Bengaluru crowd into a frenzy. However, when Udanta Singh missed the target there was a palpable sense of doom ringing around the stadium. However, Gurpreet kept his nerves in sudden death and denied Haijah to help India win their ninth SAFF Championship.
With this win, Igor Stimac becomes the first foreign head coach to win back-to-back SAFF Championship titles. This was also the first time that India defeated two West Asian countries in back-to-back matches, after winning the semi-final against Lebanon, also on penalties.