Thiruvananthapuram, Dec 31 (IANS) Star striker Jeje Lalpekhlua scored a brilliant brace as the Indian football team stormed into the SAFF Cup final with a 3-2 edge-of-the-seat win over the Maldives at the Trivandrum International Stadium here on Thursday.
Skipper Sunil Chhetri opened the scoring for the hosts in the 25th minute followed by Jeje’s 34th and 66th-minute brace which helped the six-time SAFF champions seal a place in the final. Ahmed Nashid (45th) and Amdaan Ali (75th) were the goal-scorers for the visitors. With the win, India extended their win record to seven games over the island nation in the knockout stages of the SAFF Cup.
Right from the word go, the hosts went in an attacking mode with Chhetri leading the attack. The constant press in the Maldives box yielded positive results as the captain headed the hosts to 1-0 lead. Eugeneson Lyngdoh’s shot from range was kept out by Maldivian goalkeeper Imran Mohamed. Chhetri got to the ball first and his shot went across the face of the goal, missing everyone. Holicharan Narzary crossed from the right which saw Chhetri head the ball in. With the first goal in, the hosts pressed on even more to extend their lead to 2-0. Narzary played a ball superbly over the Maldives defence for Jeje, who Jeje got beyond Shafiu Ahmed and slotted it home to make it 2-0.
With two goals down before going into half-time, the Maldives sensed urgency and started in full attacking mode, which actually came up well in their favour. Two minutes into injury time, Nashid pulled one off as he opened the scoring for the visitors to bring a sigh of relief into the Maldives camp ahead of the second half. Despite a late strike in the first half, India went into to the break with a one-goal advantage.
The Maldives kick-started the proceedings in the second half but just like the first half, the hosts took control of possession and pressed on in the Maldives box, looking to extend their lead. With the clock striking the 66th minute, India happily got their third goal when Chhetri served Jeje with a sublime pass into the box. The Chennaiyin FC striker got beyond Amdaan Ali and then Shafiu Ahmed to place the ball at the back of the net through goalkeeper’s right.
With 3-1 up against the visitors, India looked to loosen up their defence a bit as Ali made the best use of it to help his side back into the game with their second goal of the match in the 75th minute. Soon after the visitors’ second goal, India tightened up their defence, not allowing them to sneak in anything beyond the box. As the Maldives failed to bring in their third goal, the final whistle blew to send India into the final.