Three opportunities missed by skipper Sushil Kumar Singh, two players with stitched foreheads, a third taken to the hospital after falling awkwardly, and no goals in 120 minutes of regulation and extra time.
The pessimists in the Indian contingent could be excused for anticipating a setback when the SAFF Cup final against Maldives went to tiebreaker at Dhaka's Bangabandhu National Stadium on Sunday evening. That was when goalkeeper and eventual player of the tournament, Arindam Bhattacharya, made his presence felt and stopped two penalties to lead India to a 3-1 victory.
It was India's fifth title in eight editions of the tournament, revenge against Maldives who had beaten them in the final in 2008. Most importantly, however, it was a shot in the arm for those working on the future of Indian football because this success was achieved by the under-23 team. It's also a boost to India's mission Asian Cup 2011 as it assures those shaping it that there's a bench strength.
The quality of football was average at best. It was a grim and, at times, a physical battle for supremacy, which India won after a prolonged struggle, although not reflected in the scoreline.
The first genuine chance of the match came in the 80th minute when Sushil failed to keep a flick-header on target after a loose ball floated inside the penalty area, not far from the six-yard box. The India skipper came close to scoring again in the 107th minute and five minutes later when he just had to tap the ball in from inside the six-yard box.
Maldives playmaker Ashfaq Ali was kept quiet for most part of the match, but he came close on a couple occasions. Bhattacharya was guilty of gifting the first chance when he punched the ball into play instead of gripping it in the 94th minute.
The shot was blocked by a defender. Minutes after Sushil's third miss, Ashfaq saw his placement deflected from well inside the box.
Indian midfielder Jewel Raja needed a medical attention after a collision with a Maldives player and was taken off in an ambulance. Baljeet Singh and Balwant Singh fought on bandaged and Maldives, too, had a player with a cut on the face. That summed up the story of a bitterly fought match where India emerged winners after fighting till the end. They earned every cent of the $50,000 winner's purse (Rs 23 lakh approx).