Kathmandu: Defending champions India dished out yet another uninspiring performance to go down 1-2 against hosts Nepal but still managed to reach the semifinals of the SAFF Championship here on Thursday.
The six-time champions were clearly the inferior side in their last Group A match at a packed Dasarath Stadium and they were lucky to make it to the last four stage after Pakistan beat Bangladesh 2-1 in a simultaneous match.
For Nepal, who were cheered by a vociferous home crowd, Anil Gurung and Jumanu Rai scored in the 70th and 81st minutes while Syed Rahim Nabi pulled one back for India in stoppage time (92nd minute) with an impressive side volley.
The Indian defence was time and again tested by the likes of Gurung and Rai as Arnab Mondal, N Mohanraj and Nirmal Chhetri were chasing shadows most of the time.
India, however, pulled a goal back just before the final whistle when Jewel Raja Shiekh hoodwinked one of the Nepalese sidebacks with an outside dodge and essayed a centre pass, which saw Nabi find the net with an airborne volley.
India and Pakistan ended on four points behind Group A toppers Nepal – who garnered seven points from two wins and one draw – but Wim Koevermans’ men qualified for the semifinals as group runners-up having beaten Pakistan in the head-to-head encounter.
A lucky India had beaten Pakistan 1-0 in their campaign opener thanks to an own goal by their rival skipper before escaping with a 1-1 draw against Bangladesh with captain Sunil Chhetri scoring an injury time equaliser.
According to tournament rules, if two teams are on equal points in the group stage, head-to-head result will first decide which team will go through to the next stage and goal difference rule comes to play only after this.
In case of India, since they have beaten Pakistan earlier, there is no need to look at goal difference.
In the semifinals, India will play the Group A winners, which will be decided after Friday’s match between Maldives and Afghanistan, both of whom are on six points each after winning both their earlier matches.
Thursday’s result was only the second win for Nepal against India in 12 matches in all-time head-to-head contest, according to FIFA records.
The earlier win by Nepal was through penalty shootout in the 1993 SAF Games in Dhaka after the two sides were locked 2-2 after regulation and extra time.
“We knew Nepal were a very good team,” India coach Wim Koevermans said at the post-match press conference.
“They were quick and have some very good quality players. They did threaten us but did not have clear chances in the first half.
“In the second half, we kicked long and it was easy for them to defend. I want to congratulate Nepal on their victory but at the same time, it was our aim to advance to the semis which we eventually did,” he said.
The Dutchman rued that his players could not execute the plans chalked out by him.
“Players need to follow plan but it didn’t really happen. We look forward to play the fourth final on 9th,” he said, referring to his earlier statement that India would treat each match in the tournament as a final.
The men in blue play either Maldives or Afghanistan in the second semifinal on September 9.
They were, however, dealt a telling blow as skipper Sunil Chhetri, who is having a horrible tournament, will remain suspended for the semifinal after picking up his second yellow card in two matches, to go along with one earned during the match against Bangladesh.
Robin Singh is expected to start in place of Chhetri in the last four clash. (PTI)