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Thiruvananthapuram: India won the SAFF Championship for the seventh time after coming from a goal down to defeat defending champions Afghanistan 2-1 after extra time of a pulsating final at a packed Trivandrum International Stadium on Sunday

India skipper Sunil Chhetri settled the third successive SAFF Championship final between the two South Asians soccer superpowers in the 101st minute after Jeje Lalpekhlua had cancelled out Zubayr Amiri opener just two minutes after the Germany-based midfielder had given Afghanistan a 70th-minute lead.

The defending champions had the better of the opening exchanges with India keeper Gurpreet Singh getting down sharply to keep out Mustafa Zazai’s 8th-minute effort and a low angled drive from Afghan skipper Faysal Shayesteh three minutes later, 

Meanwhile, on the quarter-of-the-hour mark, Gurpreet’s Afghanistan counterpart Ovays Azizi displayed superb reflexes to claw the ball away after Halicharan Narzary’s drive across the face of the six-yard box deflected toward goal before Jeje Lalpekhlua’s header hit the woodwork as the the 24-year-old forward followed up.

Five minutes after Kanischka Taher’s 27th-minute long-range effort went just wide, Sunil Chhetri almost broke the deadlock only to be denied by a superb save from Azizi before the Denmark-based keeper reacted quickly to smoother the ball at the feet of the India skipper to prevent him getting on to Lalpekhlua’s defence-splitting, but slightly overhit, pass as the interval approached.

India finished stronger of the two and Azizi had to be alert to keep out Naryan Das’ ambitious shot from distance in first-half stoppage time as an evenly fought and entertaining first half ended on an even keel.

Just as he did it the start of the match, Zazai had the first chance of the second half and again the FC St. Pauli reserves midfielder was denied by Gurpreet, with the 23-year-old stopper making a fine 52nd-minute save, before the woodwork came to Afghanistan’s rescue as Azizi was caught out by a superb dipping shot from the impressive Lalpekhlua four minutes later.

With 20 minutes remaining, the deadlock was finally broken when Zubayr Amiri slotted the ball through the legs of Gurpreet after an intelligent pass from Shayesteh had unlocked the India defence but parity was short-lived and after just two minutes it was all square when hesitancy from defender Sayed Mommad Hashemi allowed Lalpekhlua to knock Chhetri’s cushioned header past Azizi for a quick equaliser.

India pushed for the winner and after Azizi had tipped over an audacious chip from Das in the 84th minute the superb IF Skjold Birkerod stopper once again frustrated the home fans with a fine save from Chhetri’s well-struck free-kick three minutes later.

A late push from Afghanistan gave the defending champions one last chance to retain their title in the regulation time but Abbassin Alikhil couldn’t keep his shot from just inside the area on target as the fans were treated to an additional 30 minutes of action.

The hosts took the lead ten minutes into first period of extra time when a quickly taken free-kick from inside the India half was launched deep into the opposition territory and Afghanistan’s failure to clear the danger allowed Chhetri to out-muscle Hashemi and slot the ball past Aziz into an unguarded net.

Afghanistan laid siege on the India goal as they chased the equaliser and in the 114th minute, and with Masih Saighani still protesting what he believed was a hand ball from a grounded defender as the he shaped to shoot, top scorer Khaibar Amani scrambled first to a lose ball only to be denied his fifth of the campaign when his effort ricochetted back off the post. 

Luck was with India again with the end of extra-time approaching when Bikash Jairu appeared to barge over Ahmad Hatifie inside the area only for the referee to wave play on in a frenetic finale to an entertaining encounter.

Photo: Lagardère Sports

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