India and Chhetri left stunned by late Afghan heist on horror night

Sunil Chhetri disappointed after the loss (Image: Jio Cinema Screengrab)

As he had in every landmark game in his storied career, Sunil Chhetri scored in his 150th match for India – his 94th goal for the national side coming from the penalty spot – to have his side poised on the threshold of progress to the third round of Asian World Cup qualifying.

But the lack of control and the calamitous defensive mistakes that have bedevilled the Indian team in recent months came back to haunt them as Afghanistan found two late goals that their spirit and endeavour richly deserved. That both came gift-wrapped from India will be no consolation for Igor Stimac, the coach, whose blueprint for taking Indian football forward were shredded in less than half an hour of collective madness. It would have been doubly painful for an Indian that sthe architect of their downfall was Ashley Westwood, the Afghanistan coach who earned his spurs with Bengaluru FC in the I-League a decade ago.

The picture had been so different with ten minutes to go to half time when Manvir Singh charged down the right wing and sent in a teasing cross that Haroon Amiri, the Afghan captain, bizarrely decided to punch away with Chhetri lurking. The referee spotted his mistake and after the customary protests, Chhetri stepped up and buried the ball in the corner.

Both teams could have been on the scoreboard even earlier. With just a couple of minutes gone, Chhetri collected a pass, spun and struck a shot against the post. The rebound came back to Manvir, whose lack of composure saw him sky the ball wide. Soon after, Amiri made a clever near-post run from a corner and his glancing header was brilliantly tipped over by Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.

Afghanistan didn’t have much of the ball, but were a constant threat on the counter, with Taufee Skandari causing Nikhil Poojary a fair few problems down the left wing. Brandon Fernandes and Liston Colaco had been drafted into the XI after the away leg, and both had their moments in the first half, but India’s midfield never managed to keep the ball long enough to take the heat out of the game.

Before half time, a superb lofted ball from Brandon found Colaco free running through the middle, but an awful first touch allowed the two Afghan centre-backs to track back and retrieve the situation. The second half followed a similar pattern, with India having more of the ball, but creating few clear-cut chances.

Sunil Chhetri scoring the penalty (Image: AIFF)

Midway through the second half, Stimac took off Brandon, Colaco and Chhetri, bringing on Lallianzuala Chhangte, Anirudh Thapa and Naorem Mahesh. But if the intention was to hold on to lead, it backfired spectacularly. First, a breakaway down the right saw the ball pinball in the penalty box before a deflections off Subhasish Bose took it to the feet of Rahmat Akbari. His shot somehow squeezed through the legs of Rahul Bheke and past Gurpreet, leaving the scattered fans in the stands absolutely stunned.

But worse was to come. As India threw everything forward in search of a winner, another long ball caught them cold. Fareed Sadat got to it before Gurpreet and had nudged the ball past when the Indian goalkeeper clattered him. It was an astonishing error of judgement from so experienced a goalkeeper and Sharif Mukhammad, who played in the I-League for both Gokulam Kerala and Churchill Brothers, made no mistake from the spot.

India huffed and puffed but never looked like drawing level. Less than a year ago, the national side was riding the crest of a wave. Now, after a series of costly missteps, on and off the field, things look as bleak as ever. On this evidence, beating Kuwait to advance is a pipedream.

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