From now on, don't call him Subrata Pal. Call him the keeper of faith, instead.
That would be apt, for without his three heroic saves in the tie-breaker, defending champions India wouldn't have won the ONGC 14th Nehru Cup on Monday. On an evening when the Ambedkar Stadium proved too small
for some 30,000 vociferous fans, Pal dived to his right and even as he fell, stretched out his right hand to deflect Hamzeh Attouni's shot. That ensured Syria left Indian shores as the second-best team for the second time in two years.
As Bhaichung Bhutia and Co took off for the victory run, the stadium roared. The script wouldn't have unfolded the way it did had Ali Dyab not cancelled Renedy Singh's super free-kick — won by Bhutia — which dipped and bounced in front of the Syria skipper and goalkeeper Mosab Balhous and went in. India were six minutes away from victory and the noise in the stadium seemed to have reached a cresendo.
Dyab silenced the crowd with an equaliser deep in stoppage time, superbly heading home Raja Rafe's free-kick. Resolute in their defending for most of the final, India had slipped seconds before the final whistle and Syria got a lifeline.
Renedy missed his penalty attempt, hitting the upright and Mehrajuddin Wadoo's weak shot was saved but Pal ensured India would go home winners.
Till the 65th minute, India, set going by Bhutia's first-minute drive which Balhous gripped, attacked relentlessly. Steven Dias's delivery service from the right was always accurate and from one such ball, Sunil Chhetri's left-footer missed by little.
And the back four did enough to keep the highly dangerous combination of Abdul Fatah Alaga and Mohamad Alzino at bay. Syria coach Fajer Ebrahim replaced Alzino with the dangerous Raja Rafe, but Surkumar Singh, Anwar, Gourmangi Singh and Mahesh Gawli were equal to the task. Surkumar, as usual, went for quick attacks whenever the ball was own.
Syria slowed the pace and asked India a few questions late in the match. Alaga came close with a left-footer, off Wael Ayan's cross from the left, that thudded into the upright.
Bhutia faced some crunching tackles and was often brought down by Syria conceding free-kicks. He didn't score today but that under his captaincy, India won a hattrick of titles at the Ambekar Stadium (Nehru Cups in 2007 and 2009 and the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008) should be compensation enough.
Dramatic but deserving victory: Houghton
And the trophy stays at home! The defending champions managed to win the Nehru Cup again on Monday and Bob Houghton was all praise for his 'wonderful bunch of boys'.
"It was a dramatic victory. We deserved this win. The boys played really well. They were good together, very disciplined and supported each other," Houghton said.
Houghton though said victory would have been sweeter had they won the two hours. "We conceded the goal at the last minute when we weren't expecting it. “It would have been a Cinderella story when Renedy (Singh) came on the field and scored. It was a pity to have conceded a goal.
Asked about the brilliant performance by goalkeeper Subrata Pal, Houghton said it was a job well done.
"As I have said earlier, Pal is India's best goalkeeper as of now. He made three spectacular saves and was great out there."
And Pal repaid the compliment, saying: "I am glad I didn't let Bob down."
A hattrick of triumphs at the Ambedkar achieved, India skipper Bhaichung Bhutia sounded ecstatic.
"I am very happy with the boys' performance. We started off really well and kept up the tempo. Each player was very positive in the mind and were good in the first half.
"The goal that we conceded at the last minute was due to a lapse in concentration in one last minute. But we pulled ourselves and came back really well. There's no doubt about the fact that Syria are a very good team and the win had boosted our confidence."
India lucky, says Syria coach
But according Fajer Ebrahim, India were lucky. "They were plain lucky. They got the goal due to bad referring. I don't want to say anything about the issue," said the coach who was often seen protesting against the referee's decisions.
Ebrahim though was effusive in his praise of Pal. "He was very good. He made some very difficult saves. But it was our bad luck tonight. But overall, it was a good practice before the Asian Cup."
© Copyright © 2013 HT Media Limited. All Rights Reserved.