On the eve of the AFC Challenge Cup final against holders Tajikistan, India coach Bob Houghton had stressed on the importance of a vociferous crowd support in big games. Understandable because with a place in the Asian Cup finals in Qatar on line, India were undoubtedly playing their biggest game in over two decades.
<b1>The Nehru Cup champions were given a standing ovation by an over 20,000 crowd at the Ambedkar stadium before kick-off and the inspired men in blue scored thrice before the clock touched the 30-minute mark to lead India to a comprehensive 4-1 win.
The second title in under a year in the capital also catapulted India into the continent’s highest championship after 24 years.
Sunil Chhetri scored a hattrick (9th, 23, 75) — the first by an Indian ever in a final — and Bhaichung Bhutia added another in the 19th minute to end the contest even before their opponents warmed up.
Fatkhullo Falkuloev found the consolation goal in the 44th minute with a superb 25-yard pile driver but the early deficit proved too much for the defending champions.
Supporters had started thronging the stadium since noon for a match that was to start at 7pm since the organisers could only get tickets printed late on Tuesday night. The long queue outside would have pleased Houghton and his wards no end when they reached the ground a couple of hours later.
The atmosphere was in stark contrast to Hyderabad, the actual venue of the tournament, where hardly a few hundred saw India’s march to the final, led by their talismanic skipper.
With the Gachibowli turf rendered unplayable due to heavy rains, the Asian Football Confederation shifted the final to Delhi and the delight in the India camp was understandable.
India needed to grab the initiative from the start against Tajikistan, who had caught the hosts unaware in the group encounter.
And Chhetri just did that, tapping in a rebound from handshaking distance after Pradeep connected with a brilliant diving header which goalkeeper Alisher Tuychiev could only palm in front.
Referee Valentin Kovalenko of Uzbekistan first disallowed the goal, charging the striker for being in off-side position, but reversed the decision after consulting his assistant. Bhutia doubled the lead with a first time left-footer from the top of the box, swivelling in front of three defenders defying age and a pair of dodgy knees, to volley home a cross from Chhetri.
Four minutes later it was Chhetri’s turn to show the worth of his left foot — and at home too — controlling a clearance from Surkumar Singh on his chest and hitting a low drive on the turn from 20 yards.
Tajikistan tried long-rangers to break India’s rhythm and skipper Anwar Norkulov could have struck in the 17th minute but his 30-yard effort hit the crossbar.
Falkuloev reduced the deficit with a volley a minute before half-time and the holders looked like tightening the noose around the Indian goal as they launched offensives from both flanks.
But, when the going got tough, Subrata Pal got going. He simply wouldn’t be denied this evening, thwarting Falkuloev and Numondzhon Khakimov. In between, Gourmangi Singh came up with a goal line save in the 53rd minute to deny the goalscorer.
Chhetri then put the result beyond doubt in the 75th minute, making the most of Tuychiev’s inability to collect cleanly to score the second hattrick of the day.
And though Bhutia was forced out three minutes following an elbow on his face that left him bleeding profusely, India were home and dry.
DPR Korea drub Myanmar
DPR Korea showed their class on a turf that was more conducive to quality football with a 4-0 drubbing of Myanmar to finish third. Tournament top-scorer Pak Song Chol scored a hattrick (10, 12, 44) while Ro Hak Su nodded one home in the 53rd minute to complete the rout.