BENGALURU: The Indian Senior Men’s Team kicked off their SAFF Championship title defence with a 4-0 victory over Pakistan in Group A on Wednesday, June 21, 2023, at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru.
Sunil Chhetri netted an early brace before adding another after the break for his fourth international hat-trick, thereby taking his tally to 90 goals. Substitute Udanta Singh then finished the job with the fourth goal late on to sum up a memorable night for the Blue Tigers on their return to Bengaluru after almost six years.
Kuwait beat Nepal 3-1 in the tournament opener earlier in the day. India are top of the Group A standings on goal difference after Matchday 1.
This was India’s one of biggest victories against Pakistan. In the 1999 SAF Games India defeated their rivals from across the border 5-2 with IM Vijayan scoring a hat-trick. Chhetri is the third Indian to find a hat-trick against Pakistan after Puran Bahadur and IM Vijayan.
Chhetri said after the match: “ We are very happy to start the tournament on a winning note. A game in these rainy conditions is not easy, so I’m really happy, majorly because we kept a clean sheet, and also because so many fans turned up to support us today.”
Less than 72 hours after a high-octane final victory in the Hero Intercontinental Cup in Bhubaneswar, India were off to a lightning-quick start in Bengaluru.
Pakistan goalkeeper Saqib Hanif had looked shaky right from the beginning and Chhetri took full advantage in the 10th minute. The skipper pressed high and capitalised on a mis-control from the custodian to slot the ball into an empty net.
Just five minutes later, Sahal Abdul Samad showed quick feet to skip past a couple of challenges before feeding Anirudh Thapa, who’s shot hit a Pakistan defender’s hand. The resulting India penalty was dispatched with ease by Chhetri.
Even with a two-goal lead, India maintained their high pressure and saw Chhangte’s left-footed shot on the turn saved before Sahal hit the side netting. Standing over a free-kick right outside the box, Chhetri sent it over the wall but just wide of the near post.
At the stroke of half-time, India head coach Igor Stimac was sent of for interrupting a quick throw-in from Pakistan. Assistant coach Mahesh Gawali deputised for him on the touchline after the break.
What had been a light drizzle at kick-off turned into a downpour at half-time but the Kanteerava crowd did not let their loud voices go down one bit. A big chance went begging for the Blue Tigers soon after kick-off as Sahal hit the ball wide from close range after the goalkeeper spilled Ashique Kuruniyan’s low cross.
India also threatened from set-pieces as Sandesh Jhingan headed Sahal’s free-kick onto the crossbar.
In the 73rd minute, Chhetri was pushed in the box by Muhammad Sufyan, earning another spot-kick for himself, which he sent straight into the top-left corner to score his 90th international goal and send the Bengaluru crowd into raptures.
The skipper’s former Bengaluru teammate Udanta also got in on the act, scoring India’s fourth goal in the 81st minute. Anwar Ali sent the winger clean through on goal with a fine ball over the top, and he calmly slotted it in with only the keeper to beat.
India will take on Nepal in their second Group A match on Saturday, June 24 at 7:30 pm IST.
India XI: Amrinder Singh (GK), Pritam Kotal (Nikhil Poojary 65′), Sandesh Jhingan, Anwar Ali, Subhasish Bose, Jeakson Singh Thounaojam, Anirudh Thapa (Rohit Kumar 65′), Sahal Abdul Samad, Ashique Kuruniyan (Udanta Singh 74′), Sunil Chhetri (C) (Liston Colaco 86′), Lallianzuala Chhangte (Naorem Mahesh Singh 74′).