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Chhetri the saviour as India edge past Vanuatu

The Indian senior men’s team edged Vanuatu 1-0 to book their place in the Hero Intercontinental Cup 2023 on Monday, June 12, 2023, at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar.

It was the Blue Tigers’ seventh straight win on home soil, a run that includes six clean sheets.

After a dominating 80 minutes in which the hosts created countless opportunities but lacked the cutting edge, it was Sunil Chhetri‘s sensational 86th international goal for India which ultimately settled the game.

Earlier in the day, Mongolia held Lebanon to a goalless draw after a gritty defensive display, which meant three points for India were enough to seal their final berth.

Head coach Igor Stimac made as many as nine changes to the side that overcame Mongolia 2-0 on Friday. Only captain Sunil Chhetri and Sandesh Jhingan, who made his 50th Blue Tigers appearance, maintained their place in the eleven which also had Nandhakumar Sekar making his senior international debut.

The first half was a story of misfiring shots from the Blue Tigers. With Vanuatu sitting tight at the back in the opening stages, Liston Colaco and Nandhakumar shot over the bar from long range.

Sunil Chhetri also missed a couple of headed opportunities – first, heading over a good-looking Kotal cross from the right before failing to properly connect with Mahesh’s looping delivery just before half-time.

Mahesh, handed his first start for the Blue Tigers by Stimac, was the architect of most of India’s opportunities. The East Bengal man slipped in a great through-ball for his new club teammate Nandhakumar, who could only fire wide.

Liston, who had earlier spurned a half-decent opportunity by skying a lay-off from Chhetri, eventually got India’s first shot on target. His powerful strike from the edge of the area was initially spilled by Vanuatu goalkeeper Massing Kalotang but he quickly gathered it on the second attempt before Chhetri could pounce.

Mahesh switched over to the left wing after the break, but continued to send in dangerous crosses into the middle but Chhetri headed wide once again from just outside the six-yard box.

Stimac changed his entire midfield at the hour mark, bringing on Sahal Abdul Samad, Anirudh Thapa and Jeakson Singh Thounaojam, after which India’s urgency in attack went up a notch.

As time progressed, Vanuatu began sitting deeper and deeper hoping to salvage a precious point. But the hosts were not to be denied as Chhetri broke the deadlock by notching his 86th international goal for India. Left-back Subhasish Bose, making his first international appearance in over a year, delivered an inch-perfect cross for Chhetri in the penalty area, and the skipper chested it down perfectly before volleying it in with aplomb as the ball nestled into the roof of the net.