The SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) Cup semi-final clash between India and Pakistan more than lived up to its billing with the two-arch-rivals going toe-to-toe for much of the 90 minutes.
On a sorry excuse of a football pitch at the Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka, the India U23s’ superior quality shone through at key moments in a match where players from both sides were not shy to make the hard tackles.
There were plenty of positives for Stephen Constantine and his men to take to the summit clash where they will take on Maldives for the second time in the tournament. None of them were bigger than the performance of Manvir Singh who was a constant threat with his clever movement and runs behind the Pakistan defence.
He was scouted from the Santosh Trophy and was involved in a trial camp held in 2017 in Mumbai, overseen by Stephen Constantine for the India U23 team. Manvir was picked up from the camp for the age-group national team and he has seems to have gone on from strength-to-strength.
The FC Goa forward’s general play seems to have vastly improved after a season in Sergio Lobera’s attack-oriented system and his two well-taken goals on the night were a testament to that.
He came alive in the final third in the second-half and showed good movement to grab the first goal from an excellent cross provided by Ashique Kuruniyan from the left flank. The 22-year-old former Minerva Punjab striker’s ultimately had to be stretchered off after sustaining an injury but his display on the night would have gone a long way in establishing him as an outside contender for the AFC Asian Cup next year.
Special praise should also be reserved for Kuruniyan with the FC Pune City winger putting in an accomplished performance on the left wing. His delivery for Manvir’s first of the night was sumptuous and so was his assist for birthday boy Sumit Passi in the dying minutes of the game which well and truly killed the game for India.
Constantine also deserves credit for his smart substitutions on the night. The Englishman’s decision to take off Nikhil Poojary and unleash Lallianzuala Chhange on a tired Pakistan defence in the second half paid dividends almost immediately.
The young winger counter-attacked with frightening pace from a Pakistan corner before laying the ball to his Delhi Dynamos team-mate Vinit Rai who once again put in a good shift along with Anirudh Thapa in midfield. That superb move resulted in India and Manvir’s second.
Constantine's late gambit to bring on Passi too paid off handsomely with the much-criticized Jamshedpur FC forward’s header from Kuruniyan’s cross giving Pakistan goalkeeper Yousof Butt no chance.
In defence, skipper Subhasish Bose put in a much more composed performance after being reinstated at his favoured left-back position while Vishal Kaith had a solid outing between the sticks. The Pune City custodian will be embarrassed when he looks back at his rookie mistake to collect a back from Davinder Singh although he did make amends by pulling off an outstanding double-save from the resulting free-kick.
A high-pressure clash between two arch-rivals who were meeting for the first time since 2013 was not going to pass without an incident and that was provided by Mohsin Ali and Chhangte towards the dying minutes.
The red-card to Chhangte was the only slight blemish in India’s display although their lackadaisical approach after both teams went down to 10 men could have proven more costly.
In the end, it was a deserved win for the Blue Tigers against a spirited Pakistan side that had only just returned to international football after a gap of over three years.
When the two teams last met in the group clash of the 2013 edition in Nepal, a Samar Ishaq own-goal had proved to be the difference in India’s 1-0 win. This time, the result was much more comfortable in the end.