Bhubaneswar: Indian senior men's team kicked off their Intercontinental Cup 2023 campaign with a comfortable 2-0 victory over Mongolia at the Kalinga Stadium here on Friday.
In what was the Blue Tigers’ first-ever match in Odisha in a competitive meet, they wasted no time stamping their authority, with Sahal Abdul Samad finding the net inside two minutes before Lallianzuala Chhangte doubled the lead in the 14th minute.
Lebanon had earlier beaten Vanuatu 3-1 in the opening game of the four-nation tournament, and thus lead the standings on goals scored after the first matchday.
The Blue Tigers, beginning their bid to reclaim the Hero Intercontinental Cup title they last won in 2018, started off in blistering fashion and took the lead after Anirudh Thapa was set free in acres of space down the right wing. He sent in a menacing low ball into the box which Mongolian goalkeeper Enkhtaivan Munkh-Erdene could only palm into the way of Sahal Abdul Samad. The 26-year-old swung it first-time with his left foot to score his third goal in the blue of India.
Thapa would be the architect of the second goal too just 12 minutes later - this time from a dead ball situation. His right-swinging corner was met with a towering downward header from Sandesh Jhingan, which was cleared off the line by Batbold Baljinnyam. The rebound hit Jhingan again before Chhangte, almost hiding in plain sight, pounced on the ball in a flash, volleying it into the net with the outside of his left boot. It was Chhangte's first goal for India since his strike against DPR Korea in the 2019 Intercontinental Cup in Ahmedabad.
Igor Stimac's men dominated the middle third and the wide areas throughout the game, with Udanta and Chhangte's pace and the well-oiled midfield engine of Thapa, Sahal and Apuia causing the Mongolia defence major problems. The latter two had attempts from the edge of the area which narrowly fizzed over the crossbar. A smooth bit of interplay between Sahal and Udanta set the latter free inside the box before he went down under a Mongolian challenge but the referee waved play on.
Despite India's dominance in the first half, they were not left untested in defence. Anwar Ali made an excellent last-ditch challenge to sweep the ball off the feet of Baljinnyam Batmunkh in one of Mongolia's rare forays into the Indian box.
The second half saw less goalmouth action and more meticulous play from the Blue Tigers as their East Asian opponents sat back and defended in numbers. Thapa, however, continued to tantalise the Mongolia defence with his set-piece deliveries. In the 83rd minute, another one of his right-footed crosses was met with a header from substitute Rohit Kumar, which unfortunately crashed against the crossbar. India will next play Vanuatu on Monday.