Captain Sunil Chhetri couldn't have written a better script for his 100th international game as he struck twice to power India into the final of the the Intercontinental Cup with a convincing 3-0 win over Kenya in Mumbai on Monday.
Chhetri earned a penalty and broke the deadlock in the 68th minute while Jeje Lalpekhlua doubled the home team's lead with his pile driver in the 71st minute. Chhetri ended it in the best possible manner, scoring in the stoppage time (90+1) off a Balwant Singh assist, as fans went berserk. The outpouring of emotion over the last two days was followed by a heavy downpour, which threatened to play spoilsport. Puddles of water had formed in the field of play and what followed was a scrappy first half.
As the rain stopped, the groundsmen worked hard to get the water off the field throughout the half-time interval. The talismanic Chhetri will remember the groundsmen's efforts, which probably saved the landmark game from turing into an anti-climax. After the game, the Blue Tigers walked up to the fans and acknowledged their presence, with Chhetri taking his players for a lap of honour as his proud family savoured the moment from the stands. "If this is the kind of turnout that is going to come to watch us, we can give our lives on the pitch," an emotional Chhetri said after the match.
While the Kenyans looked better in the first half and had territorial advantage despite unfamiliar conditions, India hit back strongly after the break and looked to score. The home team's intent bore fruit as it slammed in two goals in three minutes. While the first half saw passes dragging along the field, and the ball not bouncing, the period of play after the break was a far cry. Long ball was the way to go, but India managed to string together a few short passes and moves, too.
The moment the Mumbai Football Arena was waiting for arrived when Chhetri earned a contentious penalty when he fell inside the box while trying to chest down a delivery from wide right. After a delay over protests by the Kenyan players, Chhetri shot on the left side of the goalkeeper, who got a hand to it but could not stop the ball. The crowd went jubilant and there was more to follow as Jeje unleashed a pile driver off a rebound into the top corner from the edge of the box.
Befitting the occasion, Chhetri gave India another goal as he scored following a link-up with substitute Balwant Singh. The goal meant a lot to the skipper as he went over to the fans to celebrate. Chhetri had issued to a rallying call to the fans, and they turned up in numbers to mark a special night for the captain and his team. The official total attendance was 8890 in the stadium that can accommodate around 10500 people. Coach Stephen Constantine started with an unchanged XI, two days after the 5-0 demolition of Chinese Taipei.