Koevermans' side produced a much improved performance as they progressed into the final of the SAFF Championship...
By Anselm Noronha with Ayush Srivastava at the stadium
Arnab Mondal scored a goal in the 86th minute to help India edge past Maldives in the second semi-final of the SAFF Championship on Monday evening at the Dashrath Rangshala Stadium, Nepal. In what shall be a repeat of the last edition’s finale, the Blue Tigers shall face the Afghanistan challenge on Wednesday.
Maldives coach Istvan Urbanyi started with Ali Ashfaq and Ali Fasir, who were rested in the last game, in the line-up with Ahmed Rasheed and Ali Umair being left on the bench.
Wim Koevermans opted to start with Robin Singh as the lone striker to replace the suspended Sunil Chhetri. Nalappan Mohanraj was benched in favour of Syed Rahim Nabi into the left back slot, while Lenny Rodrigues and Francis Fernandes have been included in the starting eleven after having missed out in the last tie against Nepal.
The very first minute saw a free-kick from Mohammed Umair being just about kept out by India custodian Subrata Paul after Gouramangi had fouled Ali Ashfaq.
For the first time in the competition, India looked comfortable on the ball as they stringed together passes in the midfield with the likes of Mehtab Hossain, Lenny Rodrigues and Arata Izumi coordinating well.
Ali Ashfaq showed his brilliance in flashes as from a free-kick, he beat everyone only for Paul to punch it clear in the 26th minute.
After the half hour mark, Ahmed Niyaz unleashed a shot which bobbled in front of Paul who did well to gather it on the second attempt.
India did well to keep Ashfaq out of the game as the two teams went into the break with the scoreline reading 0-0.
Five minutes into the second half and Nirmal Chettri does well by putting in a pinpoint cross from the right which the Maldives defense cleared. At the other end, Paul flapped at a corner-kick with the ball falling to Niyaz whose effort from outside the box was just about saved.
Ashfaq broke into space behind Chettri and dribbled past a couple of challenges before Gouramangi cleared it for a corner in the 57th minute.
Robin Singh had a chance to prove his mettle when he had only the goalkeeper to beat from a distance after some good interplay of passes between Lenny and Francis Fernandes. However the tall striker saw his effort go wide.
India almost shot themselves on the foot in the 73rd minute. Chettri gave a poor pass which was stolen by Ashfaq and as the latter attempted to round off the keeper to score, but Paul did well to clear the danger. The Maldivian skipper was on the ground and got himself booked for simulation while his team-mates argued that they should have been awarded a penalty.
Jeje managed to find the back of the net in the 84th minute but the goal was disallowed due to his foul on the goalkeeper in the build-up.
The deadlock was broken two minutes later, as a Mehtab corner-kick was headed towards Arnab who rifled his shot home.
A couple of late substitutions by Urbanyi didn't change the scoreline for Maldives who ultimately had to face the heartbreak of failing to make it to the final once again.
Following the final whistle, Ali Umar and Mohammad Rasheed were shown red cards for arguing with the referee.
The Blue Tigers saved their best performance of the competition for the semi-final as they entered the final hoping to win a hat-trick of SAFF Championship titles. Maldives would wonder as to what went wrong for them as they seem over dependent on their skipper Ali Ashfaq.
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