SAFF Cup: 18-year-old Chhangte creates history as India thump Nepal
It was a night of his second cap and first goals for the 18-year-old Mizo sensation Lallianzuala Chhangte, who struck a brace as India romped into the semi-finals of the SAFF Championships after defeating tricky neighbours Nepal 4-1 in their final group A clash on Sunday.
It was Nepal who took the lead minutes into the must-win game but India came up with all the answers as Rowlin Borges, Sunil Chhetri and Chhangte powered India to a big win. Chhangte, in the process, became the youngest ever goalscorer for India, beating the record held by Baichung Bhutia.
Head coach Stephen Constantine made five changes to the squad from the game against Sri Lanka with last time’s double scorer Robin Singh unsurprisingly left on the bench owing to the knee injury he suffered in the opener. But surprisingly, star forward Jeje too started out in the dug-out, with 21-year-old Dempo and NorthEast United forward Holicharan Narzary getting the nod ahead of him.
There was a change between the sticks too as veteran Subrata Pal took on the gloves from Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
Nepal, as expected, started the game with a bang. Last time the two teams met, neither of them scored. But this was not to be the case as Nepal grabbed the lead in the third minute when Nawayug Shrestha latched on to a ball from the left, nudged Pritam Kotal off the ball, cut in and struck towards goal. His shot hit the post but the 17-year-old Nepalese prodigy Bimal Magar, who’s had academy stints with FC Twente, Anderlecht, Genk and Club Brugge, pounced on the rebound and tapped the ball in.
Nepal looked eager from the onset, driving forward mostly through India’s left. The Indian defence, that was not featuring Arnab Mondal from the last time seemed as if it was caught off-guard by Nepal’s vigour.
In the eighth minute however, skipper Sunil Chhetri got a chance to bring India on level terms when he was through on goal. But the opportunity was thwarted by a risky but brilliant tackle from behind, right inside the box.
India came close to scoring once again in the 20th minute when the Nepalese keeper Limbu punched a dangerous looking ball from Jairu straight on to Sanju’s path, who fought off a couple defenders and struck towards goal. His shot, lacking accuracy and power, rolled past the far post.
Since going down, India showed the urgency going forward and held possession well. Nepal, much like a beverage can, had started out with a pop but soon lost their fizz.
India finally was rewarded for their toil in the 26th minute when Narayan Das’s brilliant long free-kick from the right was flicked by Pritam Kotal into Rowllin Borges’ path. The 23-year-old midfielder, who was rewarded with a start by Constantine for his impressive second-half turn against Sri Lanka, smashed the ball into the top of the net sending the crowd in a frenzy.
Nepal, rejuvenated from the break, started the second half with intent and soon Subrata Pal’s services were required. The senior keeper justified his selection when he dove to his right brilliantly and tipped off a strong shot from close range in the 50th minute. Few minutes later he again punched out a shot from range. India, suddenly looked out of steam and the northern neighbours had the momentum going forward.
Chhetri, playing through the middle on the night (his preferred position) looked mostly stranded and proved to be ineffective. Even the 18-year-old winger Lallianzuala’s introduction (his second cap for India) at half-time for Sanju Pradhan didn’t seem to have much effect.
But it was Chhetri, India’s highest goal scorer, who again found the net on the night. After a mostly forgettable 67 minutes, the skipper found himself at the end of a low cross from Narzary from the left and struck from outside of his right foot to push the ball into the goal. India were ahead for the first time in the match.
Chhetri was again in the middle of the action a couple minutes later when he played Narzary into space in the Nepal penalty box. Narzary’s shot was blocked but the rebound fell on Chhangte’s feet. The Mizo kid came inches close to getting his maiden goal for India as his shot was cleared off the line by a scampering defender.
But as fate had it, it was Chhangte who stole the headlines in the 81st minute when he ran down the right, left a defender dazed with a couple of stepovers, shifted to his left at the edge of the box and sent a curler into the far top corner, calming India’s nerves with a two goal cushion.
The youngest scorer for India struck again in the ninetieth minute, heading the ball in off a pin point accurate Rowllin cross and capped a magical night with a brace.