On the opening day of the SAFF Cup in December last, Nepal and Maldives had played out a 1-1 draw at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, but the final scoreline was not significant. What mattered was that the hosts' next-door neighbours pleasantly surprised with their impressive performance.
Clearly, their foreign coach Graham Roberts' preparatory efforts were starting to bear fruit.How things change. Prior to the Nehru Cup, Nepal trained for only two weeks, clearly not enough for coach Krishna Thapa. "I'm not satisfied with our preparation," said Thapa after his team went down 1-2 to Maldives.
Not that their opponents - coming off a month-long fast on account of Ramzan - were in top shape. Clearly appreciating that fitness was going to be a key concern for his young players just four days after Eid-ul-Fitr, Maldives coach Istvan Urbanyi got his boys to push hard right from the start. And when the XI started to tire, the substitutes were sent in to finish the job.
Maldives dominated the proceedings in the first passage of play. Umair Mohamed headed wide in the fourth minute, but a couple of minutes later, his team secured the lead - debutant Abdullah Asadhulla firing past the 'keeper after Ali Ashfaq's free kick created a scuffle in the box.
The team in red got several chances to double their lead, but it remained 1-0 at the break.
In the second period, Nepal started off strongly, getting the ball forward along the left flank through Biraj Maharjan and Jagjeet Shrestha.
The latter was particularly impressive, giving his side their best chance to draw level, around the hour mark. His cross, however, was headed wide by Bharat Khawas.
Maharjan, who was busy trying to beat the goalie from long range, seemed oblivious to his defensive duties, much like the rest of Nepal's backline, and Maldives made them pay.
After their opponents gave the ball cheaply away in the midfield, Ahmed Rashid dashed into the box and passed to fellow sub Easa Ismail, who slotted the ball in. By the time Nepal showed their bench strength - Jumanu Rai hit home in the 95th minute - it was too late.