MUMBAI: There was a sense of déja vu as India completed a 2-0 victory over Kenya in the final of the Intercontinental Cup in Mumbai on Sunday evening. Almost 9000 fans packed into the Mumbai Football Arena to show their support for the national team. Just like the previous encounter, captain Sunil Chhetri again scored a brace for the hosts.
A full-strength Indian side survived a late surge from Kenya to win the four-nation tournament, which came to life midweek after a moving appeal by the skipper to Indian fans to come and watch the team in action. Playing to another packed house, Chhetri once again emerged the hero. He opened the scoring in the eighth minute, latching on to a low free kick by Anirudh Thapa to slot the ball home. The second came from Chhetri’s magical playbook. Having tamed the ball dead with his first touch, the 33-year-old unleashed a left-footed drive from the edge of the box that blazed into the goal. It was Chhetri’s eighth goal in four matches and elevated him to the company of some international greats. Chhetri is now tied with Argentina’s Lionel Messi on 64 goals, on the list of the most number of international goals by active players. Cristiano Ronaldo, of Portugal, tops that list with 81 goals.
The Intercontinental Cup once again proved just how vital Chhetri’s presence is to this side. The tournament was mainly designed as an exercise to get India some competitive match practice ahead of the 2019 Asian Cup. It also helped coach Stephen Constantine to test out a variety of players. Thapa, who provided the assist for the opening goal, was one of the youngsters who impressed. “If you have one or two utility players like this guy (Anirudh Thapa), if I put him out wide, I don’t have a problem. If I play him in the middle, I don’t have a problem,” Constantine had said before the final. “I believe in young players, especially if they are good enough, then they’re old enough. In the last three-and-a-half years, we’ve given more than 30 international debuts. 15 of those have proven to be decent players. And we have an U-23 side that I believe is up and coming and 10-11 of them are in this squad. So the future for the national team is bright.”
Ranked 112, Kenya was the best-ranked competition for India in the tournament that also featured Chinese Taipei and New Zealand. But India were so dominant that they did not concede a goal to their African opponents in two games. Indian goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who has kept clean sheets in all matches he has played, was once again impeccable and made two excellent saves in the dying minutes.
Leading from the front