Imphal: It was a night of abundant celebrations at the Khuman Lampak Stadium in the capital city of Manipur on Tuesday.
As the capacity crowd of 30,000 cheered and applauded Sunil Chhetri and his men right from the word go, the Blue Tigers played some inspiring football against the higher-ranked Kyrgyz Republic to snatch a 2-0 victory and bag the Hero Tri-National International Tournament Trophy with an all-win record under their belt and without conceding a goal.
Played during the FIFA window between March 22 and 28, 2023, Croatian coach Igor Stimac and his wards made the best out of it by winning both matches in the competition. They began their campaign with a 1-0 win over Myanmar and a rather emphatic scoreline against the Kyrgyz Republic on Tuesday put them in the enviable position of finishing the tournament with six points from two encounters.
Against the Kyrgyz Republic, the opening goal came from a rather unexpected quarter – centre-back Sandesh Jhingan found the target in the 34th minute.
As Brandon Fernandes put the ball in style in front of the rival goalmouth off a free-kick, Jhingan pounced on it like a panther to find the back of the net. If the Kyrgyz Republic goalkeeper Tokotaev Erzhan had an inkling that the tall Indian defender would go for a header, then he was terribly wrong as Jhingan waited for the ball to land and then swung it with a deft touch to give India the lead. It wasn’t for nothing that the crowd turned the merriment into a rather wild one that lasted for a few minutes.
Indian coach Igor Stimac, on the eve of the match, spoke about going for all-out attacks despite the fact that a draw would have been enough to keep the trophy home. He certainly kept his word as India launched a series of raids on the opposition goal whenever they had the opportunity. One such attack in the 84th minute saw the Kyrgyz Republic defence crumble under pressure as Naorem Mahesh Singh was brought down inside the penalty box by Davydov Nikolai.
The award of the spot kick certainly came as a matter of double delight for the home fans. It wasn’t only the second goal for India, but also the 85th international strike in his career for the Indian captain Sunil Chhetri. As the legend of Indian football stepped up to take the kick and then strike it to the corner of the net, the joy of the spectators knew no bounds.
While Chhetri coolly walked back to his position after doing something that he has been doing regularly for the Blue Tigers since 2006, Stimac was spotted having a broad smile on his face and hugging his assistant coach Mahesh Gawli, who once was Chhetri’s teammate in the National Team.
Overall, India were the deserving winners, their fifth straight win on home turf. Stimac made six changes from the team that started against Myanmar, but it didn’t at all break their rhythm. In fact, India could have won by a bigger margin – the Kyrgyz Republic goal had a few close shaves as a couple of attempts from Chhetri and Chhangte missed the target by a whisker.
If preparations for the AFC Asian Cup in January next was the chief purpose of hosting the tournament, then it was definitely a success – the Indians clearly displayed that they were growing in confidence before they take up the all-important continental challenge.