Trivandrum: It was a New Year's eve of nerves at the Trivandrum International stadium on as India fought off a resilient Maldives to win 3-2, courtesy a brace from Jeje Lalpekhlua. The Blue Tigers progressed to the 2015 SAFF Championship final.
The Blue Tigers had romped ahead in the first-half, riding on goals from Sunil Chhetri and Jeje. But Maldives, coming back to life, pulled one back in the dying moments of the first half. Jeje found the net again in the second half, but it was to be a nervous finish for the hosts as Maldives scored a late second to put them in a bit of a worry.
Constantine made three changes to the squad on Thursday with Chennaiyin FC forward Jeje Lalpekhlua, who was rested against Nepal, coming in for Sanju Pradhan. In an another not so surprising change, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was back between the posts.
Maldives were presented with a couple of chances early on but thereafter, it was the hosts who came out all guns blazing in the first-half after a shaky first 10 minutes, eager to take initiative in the first semi-final.
The Maldivians caught the Indian defence sleeping early on in the seventh minute when Abdulla Asadhulla ventured deep into the Indian penalty box and left Narayan Das embarrassed as he shifted on to his left. But his shot went wide of the near post, much to Gurpreet's relief.
Minutes later India thought they scored when Mondal's deflected shot off a set piece rolled into the Maldivian goal, sending the crowd through the roof. But the Indian team's jubilation was short-lived as the linesman's flag went up and the goal was correctly ruled out offside.
India, confident on the ball after a bit of a nervous start, dictated the tempo of the game, stringing together passes near the Maldivian box and creating inroads, but failed to break the deadlock. Another chance went begging for the men in blue in the 20th minute when Bikash Jairu's skied a shot from the edge of the Maldivian box after Chhetri flicked him on through.
India's relentless attacks on the Maldivian goal finally bore fruit in the 25th minute when Chhetri headed in a cross from Holicharan Narzary from the right, sending the Indian support right behind the goal in a delirium. It was a calm finish, without even attempting to leap off the ground. This was the Indian captain's second goal of the tournament.
India soon came whiskers close to doubling their lead but Imran pulled off a brilliant double-save, thwarting Chhetri and Jeje's close range attempts after Pritam Kotal put the ball in the box from the right.
But the Blue Tigers didn't have to wait long for their second goal as a Holicharan's lob in the 34th minute put Jeje through on goal and the forward showed good strength to hold the defender off, and finished with ease.
It was only the Maldivian keeper Mohamed Imran who was saving the blushes for his team. His brilliant reflexes kept Chhetri's powerful shot at bay in the thirty fifth minute. His services were again required to ward off a stinger from Rowllin Borges in the 41st minute.
It was only one-way traffic through the course of the first half. Maldives seemed to have lost the plot and were barely able to string three passes together. But deep into first-half injury time, Maldives found a breather when Nashid Ahmed put one in India's goal after Imaaz Ahmed squared it for him in the penalty area.
The second-half started more on the even keel and Maldives, gaining momentum form their last minute first-half goal, strode ahead into India's half and asked questions of the defensive third.
But India, kept the island nation at bay and looked for that third goal to calm down their nerves.
Jeje could have doubled India's lead again had he shown a little more composure in the 61st minute after a good pass from Narzary, but he instead went for power and his shot from inside the box sailed into the crowd.
But it was the star Chennaiyin forward who eventually found India's third on the night when he received a pass from Chhetri at the edge of the box, ran into the area holding off a couple of defenders, and fired low to his left into the bottom corner of the net as India heaved a sigh of relief.
With a two goal cushion restored, Constantine brought in the 18-year-old sensation Lallianzuala Chhangte for the skipper in the 74th minute. But soon the cushion vanished when Ali Amdhan headed in a corner in 75th minute, bringing Maldives a goal within India's reach.
India then held on to their one goal-lead for a nervy last 15 minutes, sending the crowd in a frenzy at the end of the final whistle.
The Blue Tigers proceed to the final of the SAFF Championship 3 January and will face the winner of the second semi-final between Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.