The Indian senior men’s team edged Vanuatu 1-0 to book their place in the 2023 Intercontinental Cup Final on Monday at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar.
This victory marked the Indian team’s seventh straight victory on their home soil, a run that is built on the back of strong defensive performances. In their last seven games, India has managed to keep six clean sheets.
Coming to the match, after dominating Vanuatu for 80 minutes, the Men in Blue found themselves on level terms with the opposition. The hosts created countless opportunities but lacked the cutting edge in the final half of the pitch.
It was Sunil Chhetri’s sensational 86th international goal for India which ultimately settled the game.
Head coach Igor Stimac made nine changes to the side that overcame Mongolia with a score of 2-0 on Friday. Only captain Sunil Chhetri and Sandesh Jhingan, who made his 50th Blue Tigers appearance, maintained their place in the eleven which also had Nandhakumar Sekar making his senior international debut.
The first half was a story of misfiring shots from the Blue Tigers. With Vanuatu sitting tight at the back in the opening stages. Chhetri also missed a couple of headed opportunities – first, heading over a good-looking Kotal cross from the right before failing to properly connect with Mahesh’s looping delivery just before half-time.
Mahesh who was handed his first start for the Blue Tigers by Stimac, was the architect of most of India’s opportunities. The East Bengal man slipped in a great through-ball for his new club teammate Nandhakumar, who misfired his shot.
Liston, who had earlier spurned a half-decent opportunity by skying a lay-off from Chhetri, eventually got India’s first shot on target. His powerful strike from the edge of the area was initially spilled by Vanuatu goalkeeper Massing Kalotang but he quickly gathered it on the second attempt before Chhetri could pounce on the opportunity.
Mahesh switched over to the left wing after the break, but continued to send in dangerous crosses into the middle but Chhetri headed wide once again from just outside the six-yard box.
Stimac changed his entire midfield at the hour mark, bringing on Sahal Abdul Samad, Anirudh Thapa and Jeakson Singh Thounaojam, after which India’s urgency in attack went up a notch.
As time progressed, Vanuatu began sitting deeper and deeper hoping to salvage a precious point. But the hosts were not to be denied as Chhetri broke the deadlock by notching his 86th international goal for India. Left-back Subhasish Bose, making his first international appearance in over a year, delivered an inch-perfect cross for Chhetri in the penalty area, and the skipper chested it down perfectly before volleying it in with aplomb as the ball nestled into the roof of the net.
Earlier in the day, Mongolia squared off against Lebanon with hopes of keeping their winning streak alive. However, things didn’t pan out as they thought it would. Mongolia were held to a goalless draw after a gritty defensive display, which meant three points for India were enough to seal their final berth. India, now top of the table with six points, will next play second-placed Lebanon on Thursday, June 15.