Sunil Chhetri scored both goals as the Indian men’s football team started their AFC Asian Cup qualifiers campaign with a comfortable 2-0 win over Cambodia at the Vivekananda Yuva Bharati Krirangan on Wednesday.
India are trying to qualify for successive AFC Asia Cups for the first time ever, having done so in 2019, with their previous appearances coming in 2011, 1984 and 1964.
After the Football Federation of Cambodia (FFC) complained to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) regarding their flag and threatened to pull out of the tournament, there was more controversy in store before kick-off. Cambodia players had to wait nearly 5 minutes for their national anthem to be played as the flag on the digital screen cut to black midway through.
The game though did get underway as advertised and India started the match as promised by head coach Igor Stimac with a lighting barrage of attacks.
In the 9th minute, Liston Colaco had a good chance to get in behind the defence from a lucky break but a heavy touch meant the defender made his ground and cleared. It seemed that Blue Tigers had tasted blood and the next chance would not be given up in a hurry.
Liston got a long diagonal ball from deep that he chested down with his usual aplomb, losing his marker in the process. A sudden burst of pace and he was away from another as a third defender had to slide in to bring him down and thwart the attack. The referee though did not agree as he blew his whistle and pointed to the penalty spot.
After some protests from the Cambodian players, which were promptly waved away by the referee, Chhetri stepped up to slot it past the keeper and get his 81st goal. The Indian talisman is fifth in the list of highest goals scorers among active footballers, behind Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo (117), Iran’s Ali Daei (109), and Malaysia’s Mokhtar Dahari (89) and Argentina’s Lionel Messi (86).
Stimac decided to change up his attack at the start of the second half, bringing on Udanta Singh and Sahal Abdul Samad in place of Manvir Singh and Anirudh Thapa.
As India lulled to metronomic passing from front to back, the crowd in attendance willed the ball forward for another push. Cambodia, who had been accustomed to India’s attacks had almost gone to sleep at the back post as Chhetri yet again crept up to slot in a thundering header from a well-taken Brandon Fernandes corner in the 60th minute.
One of the shortest on the field standing tall as he blew a kiss to the maddening raptures from the stands.
Minutes later Brandon, impressed with his skill on his weaker left foot, decided to try his luck from distance but managed to stub only the top of the net.
Chhetri had a golden chance to net his hat-trick, from yet another Brandon through ball, but his usually controlled first touch evaded him at goal-mouth. He was substituted soon after as the fans showered him with a starry night from the stands. Ashique Kuruniyan took over from him as Brandon too made way for Glan Martins.
Roshan, who had been impressing down the right-wing, had to be taken off with injury as Pritam Kotal came on to tighten up the defence further.
The teams looked content with the result in the final stretch of the game as the nearly 26,000 spectators begged for one more goal. It was not to be though as India ended the night on top of Group D with Hong Kong beating Afghanistan 2-1 earlier in the day.