In four days’ time Sunil Chhetri will complete 17 years in international football. The 37-year-old still remains unmatched in terms of skill-set and hunger. He scored twice in India’s 2-0 win over Cambodia in their opening game of the Asian Cup Group D qualifiers, taking his international goals count to 82. Just going by the hard numbers, Chhetri is four shy of Lionel Messi’s tally of 86.
Not only did he lead with aplomb, the veteran marksman also showed the passion of a 17-year-old, who cut his teeth in big-time football for Mohun Bagan in 2002. When Liston Colaco attempted a shot from well outside the area instead of searching for a better option, his captain berated him. When the referee booked him for a high challenge, Chhetri went ballistic at his midfielders for not closing down the Cambodian player.
The Cambodian national anthem hit a technical snag and was played late, forcing a delayed start of the match. India were on the front foot right from the outset against a listless Cambodian side that looked rusty, playing only their second international fixture this year. Counter-attack had to be Cambodia’s go-to option, masterminded by the team’s general manager in the dug-out, the Japan and AC Milan hero Keisuke Honda. But his players lacked quality.
India played without pressure and scored their first goal on 13 minutes. Boris Kok went for a sliding tackle to deny Colaco inside the area, got the ball but made contact with the Indian attacker on his follow through. Rub of the green, though, went India’s way, as the referee awarded a penalty. Chhetri converted from the spot.
An early goal was what the Indian team head coach Igor Stimac wanted and a 1-0 lead allowed the hosts enough breathing space. A Keo Sokpheng free-kick from 20 yards out was Cambodia’s tenuous link to a goal-threat. Stimac made positive substitutions at half-time, bringing on Sahal Abdul Samad and Udanta Singh for Anirudh Thapa and Manvir Singh respectively. India upped the ante in the second-half. Chhetri’s header from a Brandon Fernandes’s assist on 59 minutes secured three points and a good start to the campaign before tougher assignments, against Afghanistan and Hong Kong.
Some packed enclosures at the Salt Lake Stadium made a mockery of the AIFF’s decision to initially issue only 12,000 complimentary tickets for India’s matches. Chhetri got a standing ovation when he left the pitch on 68 minutes. The job was done and Stimac preserved his skipper for the next two matches. The fans applauded Colaco for a wonderful tackle that thwarted a Cambodian counter-attack.
They put their hands together for Akash Mishra, who had an excellent all-round game. They hung a banner as a mark of respect to India’s greatest, Chuni Goswami. India tends to lose their bearings in the final quarter. Cambodia barely showed any ambition and the hosts were safe. The next two games would be a test of endurance, in mid-summer heat and humidity.