Home advantage is a very real thing. India proved it on a historic night when they won the SAFF Championship against favourites Afghanistan in front of 40,500 loud and maddening supporters.
The occasion was justified by the atmosphere as the turnout, dormant for much of the tournament, erupted on Sunday. The scenes at the stands had not been very encouraging up till then. A few stands filled here and there, cheers from one corner of the stadium; that was it. But one could sense the buzz in the air around the stadium two hours ahead of kick-off. Security was air-tight, the atmosphere was tense and the weight of the occasion palpable. By the time the teams took to the field, Trivandrum International Stadium had become a cauldron of noise. It was clear that Afghanistan was not going to get any favours from the stands.
Indian skipper Sunil Chhetri, who scored a 101st minute winner, was impressed with the support the Blue Tigers got on the night and said it was instrumental in galvanising the team to go all out.
"I was disappointed before. Today I was really happy. Kerala is usually jam-packed in a big game. I was disappointed in the first two games. Now this felt like Kerala. Fans came from Bangalore and a lot of other places. It feels good. When we went down 1-0, all the fans cheered for us, that gave us the motivation to come back," the captain said in the post-match press conference.
True the crowd added fuel to the fire, but India played its heart out on the field last night. And it was a combination of factors that helped India reclaim the SAFF crown. Here are a few talking points from the game.
The Indian defence
It is hard to believe that it was the same Indian defence on the night of the final that played the semi against Maldives. The last time around, the back four were shaky and gave away two goals for Maldives to come back in the match. Stephen Constantine had called on his defenders to not give away "new year's gifts" to Afghanistan.
It looked like the point hit home hard. The defence was tight as a cork in bottle. Despite Afghanistan's fearsome goal scoring habits, India just conceded one goal, one that could have been avoided as well had Gurpreet Singh reacted as his usual self. But on all other occasions it was a shutout. Gurpreet pulled off a few spectacular saves on a busy night. And the back four were aided ably by the midfield.
It was a rallying team effort for the entirety of 120 minutes. Constantine too chose not to single out anyone for praise in the post-match press conference. "It's not about one or two players in the team, it's about everybody," he said.
The work rate
It is impossible to tell how Bikash Jairu ran the entire 120 minutes. But he did, before being substituted in the 121st minute. And it was not just Jairu, the work rate from everyone in the team was absolutely die-hard. Constantine had earlier said he wanted his players to play at a level which is always up there. And they did it yesterday.
Credit goes to India's fitness coach Danny Deigan, who is said to be absolutely ruthless in training. A few days ago, the AIFF had released GPS data of Indian players in training and in their SAFF game against Nepal. It was considerable improvement over data collected from the World Cup qualifier against Iran in Bengaluru. Then, the wing backs had covered a distance of 9,507 meters, central defenders 9,100 meters, midfielders 10,872 meters and the forwards 10,137 meters.
Against Nepal in the SAFF Championships, the numbers increased to 10,476 meters for wing backs, 9,435 meters for central defenders, midfielders 11,298 meters and the forwards rose to 1,0600 meters.
It would be fascinating to see the numbers from the final.
Constantine didn't exercise a substitution in a physically intense and high pressure game till the 97th minute. And one could see Afghanistan's players getting frustrated and weary during the course of the match. Chhetri's winner was borne out of some lethargic defending by the defending champions. India on the other hand maintained the intensity throughout.
It was unclear why Afghanistan started the game without their brilliant striker Khybar Amani. You don't leave the top scorer of the tournament on the bench in the final. The physically imposing striker came on after the end of regulation time in the 91st minute. Why wait so long to pull out your best gun, unless there was a case of an injury. However, it didn't seem so.
"When I saw their number nine striker (Amani) didn't start the game, for me that was a plus. I knew he was injured. I figured he was injured because why wouldn't you start him. And when he came on you could see how well he holds the ball, he's good in the air. They wanted to try and pick us off. They thought we'll all push into attack because we had the crowd. But we have a few experienced players," Constantine said pointing to Chhetri, "We knew what we were doing. At the end of 120 minutes we created more chances and deserved the win."
Afghanistan team manager Mustafa Mehrzad however said that players were brought in late intentionally. "In the beginning only 11 can play football. We did our homework to bring them in the last minute so they can be fresh players. Maybe in this game it didn't work."
Not just Amani, Afghanistan also didn't bring on 19-year-old Omid Popalzay, who had impressed since he featured in the tournament and had two goals to his name as well, till the 84th minute.
The defending champions looked on the defensive from the start and didn't play their free-flowing attack oriented game. Much of it though can be credited to the Indian midfield.
The Indian midfield combination
The Indian central midfield duo of Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Rowlin Borges must've had very clear instructions and seen how Afghanistan play. And they came up with the perfect foil for the opposition's game. Rowlin had told Firstpost earlier that he had excellent communication with Lyngdoh and they backed each other whenever one of them went forward. Their understanding last night was instrumental in disrupting Afghanistan's midfield.
Afghan skipper Faysal Shayesteh, who has been the driving point of his team's attack through the midfield looked completely nullified on the night.
Jairu was excellent throughout and Holicharan Narzary too played as a fourth midfielder rather as a forward. Jairu had started on the right and Holicharan on the left, but they both swapped wings at the start of the second half. The switch was seamless and the midfield looked fluid. Constantine said about the swap that he wanted such flexibility in the team and both of them were left footed players and hence got a chance to cut and take a shot.
Due to this strategy, Jairu and Holicharan had a more rounded-off approach, as they cut in and went for shots and went wide and put in crosses as well.
And who again but the man himself, Sunil Chhetri. The captain, like clockwork, scored the winner and clinched a special victory for India. Chhetri's role in the side cannot be summed up in a few words. He is a phenomenal captain who comes up with the goods over and over again. He was tireless last night, and as always the team looked up to him when they needed him the most. And he rarely ever disappoints.
He let in a "secret" after the game and told about how he motivated his team ahead of the final.
"Afghanistan is not going to play SAFF again, they are going to a different zone. We lost against them (in the final) in 2013 (SAFF Championships) in Nepal. And if we had lost today, they would've been SAFF Champions for life. No matter how many more SAFF Championships we win, they would always say 'we left that zone, we were the champions'. I said to the boys today, no matter what, this cannot happen. This was very important for us," Chhetri said.
On being asked where he rated this SAFF victory, the skipper said: "At the top, to be honest."
Chhetri repeatedly said it was not easy. It was a young squad. And he was the only player above 30. His importance increases when everyone alongside him is younger than him. Constantine's young army are very lucky to have an old dog like Chhetri around. And he doesn't just bark, he bites quite often as well. Chhetri and Jeje Lalpekhlua finished as India's top scorers in the tournament with three goals apiece. And as always, they came when they were needed the most.