Indian colts faced off against hosts Nepal in the second semi-final of SAFF Cup in what would be their toughest match of the competition so far. India reached the semi-final after a 5-0 thrashing of Maldives in the group leg, having suffered a shock 1-0 loss in the opener against Pakistan. Nepal started their campaign with a dull 0-0 draw against Bangladesh in an ill-tempered encounter. In second match, they crushed Sri Lanka 6-0, topping the group ahead of Bangladesh by virtue of a  superior goal difference. In the final, Pakistan awaited the winner of this match, after defeating Bangladesh 2-0 via two goals in last two minutes of the first semi-final.

Indian strike force, which had a good outing against Maldives, was up for a litmus test against a well-organized Nepali defence which hadn’t conceded a single goal in the tournament thus far. Both teams missed crucial players due to suspensions – Nepal missed Rungri Rai while India was without Lalramzuava. Nepal started the match with a 3-5-2 formation while India fielded the customary 4-4-2 formation.

India U16 Team

First Half – Nepal Take Lead

An impressive number of 5000 spectators gathered in the Dasrath Stadium to cheer the home team. Backed by the local crowd, Nepali boys started the match on an attacking note, earning a corner kick after just four minutes. Indian defence held strong with Myron Mendes leading from the front. Nepali strikers were trying to get past the Indian defenders with their pace, while the away team tried to counter-attack by launching long balls towards Laldanta Sanga, who had scored a brace in the game against Maldives. India’s first positive chance came in the 11th minute but Raja Rawat’s shot didn’t trouble opposition ‘keeper. Just like the match against Pakistan, Daniel was the most active player for India in the opponent half.

The home team took the lead in the 20th minute when Rishi Thapa scored after Suman Lama hit the post with a beautiful long ranger. Daniel almost leveled the score within a minute of conceding, but his shot missed the goal by whiskers. Indian defence, meanwhile, was committing too many fouls around the penalty box and gave away cheap free kicks to Nepal. As the match wore on, Indian striker duo of Laldanta and Daniel began to look more and more threatening, as India desperately searched for an equalizer.

Neither team could create clear cut chances in last ten minutes of the first half as Nepal went into the lemon break 1-0 up.

Second Half and Tie Breaker – India Sneak Into Final

Second half continued in similar manner with teams matching each other blow by blow. Laldanta and Daniel showed excellent chemistry upfront but their finishing was not up to the mark. Nepal, on the other hand, relied heavily on the skills and movement of Rishi Lama to extend their lead. Indian midfield was over-run in first half by Nepal, who played a 5-man midfield. In second half, Myron Mendes played in a more advanced position as a winger, which negated the advantage Nepal had in midfield.

Nepal’s defence showed why they hadn’t conceded a goal till now as they kept Indian attackers at bay time after time. The home team came close to scoring thrice in second half. Once they hit the cross-bar, while Indian goalie Supratim had to make two sharp saves to keep India in the game. Just when the Nepali crowd was beginning to celebrate a win, Nitin Jyal popped out of nowhere to spoil their party, scoring on the 94th minute.

It was a test of nerves for the young Indian team as the match came down to penalty shootout in the end. In the presence of a partisan and vociferous crowd, Indian players needed nerves of steel to triumph. And they did, against all odds. Custodian Supratim Bhattacharya showed supreme confidence in the shootout, as he forced Nepali strikers to make mistakes. Captain Hemen Gurung and Umesh Thapa had their shots saved by Supratim. Indian players, on the other hand, converted their spot kicks through Laldanta, Myron, Suman Saha and Harmanjyot as India hung on to register a 4-2 victory.

Final Verdict

This was hardly a convincing performance from India, as Nepal dominated the proceedings for long periods in the match. Supratim, who was easily the man of the match, saved the day for India. Thomas Joseph has a lot of work to do if India are to defeat Pakistan, who have shown ominous form in the tournament so far. The only positive from this match (other than the result) was the mental strength showed by Indian boys. On to the final then!