Showmanship in Indian football has a name – Sunil Chhetri. Off the field, He appeals to fans to “come to the stadium and abuse us on our faces”, and then on the field, he puts on one of the most magnificent shows. He did it during his 100th match against Kenya, and on Sunday, in the final of Intercontinental Cup against the same opponents at the Mumbai Football Arena, he did the same.
Riding on Chhetri’s brace, India beat their African opponents 2-0 to win the second edition of the tournament. Chhetri’s who scored seven goals in four matches in the tournament, took just eight minutes to break the deadlock. And the goal was a drawing-room masterclass. The hosts were awarded a freekick at the edge of the Kenyan box and youngster Anirudh Thapa stepped up to take it. Chhetri casually strolled offside and just as the kick was about to be taken, darted into onside posotion to receive the low pass and slot it into the net as the Kenyan defence, along with their goalkeeper, looked completely clueless.
Two minutes later the skipper missed a chance to double when he had a clear run with just the goalkeeper to beat. He chose to square the ball, but to his dismay, there was nobody running for it. With the goalkeeper off his line, Chhetri could’ve just lobbed it over, like he’s done countless times, but he chose to be selfless, at the worst time possible though.
He made up for that mistake in the 29th minute with superb left-footed strike. The Bengaluru FC striker anticipated a long ball from defender Anas Edathodika. While on the run, he brought it down with his chest and placed it in the right bottom corner, probably the only place the goalkeeper could be beaten. And he did it with his weaker foot!
He seldom celebrates after scoring, but in front of the screaming fans that filled the stadium to capacity, he just couldn’t control himself, encouraging the fans to cheer even louder. After all, it’s Chhetri that the fans had come to see.
While Kenya were excellent in midfield, their strikers lacked gumption and finesse upfront. They didn’t really trouble the defence, though they did try quite a few long-range shots that troubled goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu but didn’t scare him.
This tournament was a preparation for the all-important AFC Asian Cup in January next year where India are drawn with hosts UAE, Bahrain and Thailand. And if the final is anything to go by, India need to work on their midfield. Against a second-string Kenya, they were content with playing long balls and running down the flanks but the midfield failed to keep possession or dictate play, something which will not work against the best of Asia.
For now though, they can savour this victory.