Thiruvananthapuram: On a night of heightened drama and gladiator-esque atmosphere, it was hosts India who held on to their nerves and their 2-1 lead at the end of 120 minutes to register an emphatic and unlikely win over defending champions Afghanistan at the SAFF Championships final.
Just like the 2011 edition of the tournament, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Sunil Chhetri scored on the night to reclaim the trophy and avenge the 2013 loss to the same opponents. Chhetri's goal, which came late in extra-time, was the decisive goal on the night for the Blue Tigers.
After a goalless first 45 minutes, Afghanistan, playing its last SAFF Championships, broke the deadlock in the 70th minute through a Zubayr Amiri goal. But it was the Chennaiyin FC forward Jeje, who brought India on level terms, finally finding the goal after hitting the crossbar twice earlier on the night. It then had to be India's talismanic skipper Chhetri, who scored the winner in the first-half of extra time after 100 minutes of play, powering India to a record seventh SAFF Championship title.
Team India coach played safe on the big occasion and threw the chopping and changing out of the window. It was the same squad that had defeated Maldives in the semi-final. Maybe the coach rewarded their grit, seeing as they'd need plenty of it in the final.
India started out with Bikash Jairu on the right and Holicharan Narzary on the left, a switch from last time around. Chhetri and Jeje played through the centre. It was a cautious start from both sides, with the midfield looking saturated.
Afghanistan had the first peek at the goal in the eighth minute when Mustafa Zazai collected the ball near the Indian box and fired in a low shot, which Gurpreet had no problem collecting. Slowly but surely, the defending champions seemed close to finding their rhythm going forward and soon Gurpreet was again called upon to prevent India from going down. Noraollah Amiri put his captain Faysal Shayesteh through on goal from the left, whose powerful shot from angle was punched away by the 23-year-old Stabaek custodian.
But soon India, spurred on by the vociferous support, got a chance as good as any in the 14th minute when Jeje hit the crossbar with his head on a rebound after the Afghan goalkeeper Ovays Azizi stopped a deflected Holicharan cross from finding the net. Jeje had another look at goal when he fired in from the edge of the goal area, but the move was rightly flagged offside.
India started to look much more threatening going forward, creating better chances and even enjoying prolonged sessions of possession. They came close to opening the scoring again in the 33rd minute when Chhetri brilliantly chested down a typical Lyngdoh long ball in the box, fought off a defender and took a shot. But an alert Aziz dove to his right and collected the ball, much to the Indian skipper's disappointment.
There wasn't really much to separate the two teams in the first 45 minutes as both enjoyed a fair share of possession and chances. The nerves could be heard jingling even over the noise from the stands and just as one thought that the first-half had seen its share of the action, left-back Narayan Das strode into the Afghan half and whacked in a stinger from about 30 yards out. Caught unawares, Azizi scrambled to keep it out.
Jairu and Holicharan swapped wings at the start of the second half, presumably because Constantine would've wanted the latter to get more involved in attacks.
Gurpreet was soon tested five minutes into the second-half as he punched out Zazai's powerful shot on his near post, keeping the deadlock.
The game picked up where it left off after the break and India came agonisingly close to take the lead in the 55th minute as Jeje's breathtaking curler from outside the box was denied by the crossbar again. Azizi, left stranded, saw the ball sail over his head and hit the frame.
But it were the defending champions who broke the deadlock in the 70th minute when skipper Faysal put Zubayr through on goal and the 25-year-old midfielder put the ball through Gurpreet's legs and into the net, sending the crowd into stunned silence.
But Afghanistan's lead was short-lived as Jeje finally found the net on the night a couple of minutes later, leaving the stands in pandemonium. It was Chhetri who headed in Holicharan's cross onto Jeje's path who put the ball between the woodwork from an arm's length out this time.
Chhetri soon came close to scoring himself when India got a free-kick right in front of the goalmouth after Holicharan was brought down on the edge of the box, four minutes away from regulation time. Chhetri's curling free-kick beat the wall but the keeper was more than alert and punched out the effort.
Afghanistan almost took home the trophy when Abassin Alikhil's volley went wide seconds before the full-time whistle.
The defending champions brought on their most lethal weapon only after end of regulation time as tournament's leading scorer Kahibar Amani came on for Zazai. But Constantine waited for seven more minutes before subbing on Pronay Halder for Lyngdoh to give the team more defensive cover in the midfield.
Right when the match reached the 100 minute mark, It was India's favourite footballing son Chhetri, who found the breakthrough to put India ahead. The skipper ran to get to a Jeje long ball as Mohammad Hashemi erred once again at the edge and let Chhetri get to the ball. The Indian captain's scuffed shot slowly rolled into an empty goal as Azizi had come off his line.
India then held on to their lead for a nervy last 20 minutes which witnessed more drama as the Afghan coach Petar Segrt was sent to the stands by the referee for appealing a bit too vocally for a penalty. The defending champions were left sour after their appeals of a handball in the box, on an instance that saw Arnab Mondal get injured and substituted, were brushed aside by the Japanese referee.
In the end, Chhetri, who was voted the Most Valuable Player of the tournament, was the match-winner on the night as India won their first silverware under Stephen Constantine's second coming as India's head-coach.