Subroto Paul was India’s hero tonight, pulling off three saves in the tie-breaker to deny a fighting Syria the Nehru Cup.
The roar from the overflowing audience must have reached Damascus as Paul punched Hamzeh Alattouni’s kick into the stands behind him, signalling rapturous scenes at the Ambedkar Stadium.
Fans invaded the field to celebrate the glorious evening as India defended the title with a 6-5 triumph after being locked 1-1 at the end of 120 minutes. India at one point led 3-1 in the tie-breaker.
Paul indeed capped a terrific tournament. His saves off Wael Ayan, Ahmad Haj Muhmad and Alattouni nullified the misses by Renedy Singh and Mehrajuddin Wadoo.
Paul’s counterpart, Mosab Balhous, Raja Rafe, Abdul Fatah Alaga and Abdalrazak Al Housian scored. For India, the successful men in the tie-breaker were Climax Lawrence, Sunil Chetri, Anwar
Ali and Surkumar Singh.
India should have wrapped it up in the 114th minute when Renedy, replacing a tired Anthony Pereira, sank Syria with a deft free kick but Ali Dyan pulled off a header in a stunning counter-attack that shattered the Indian camp. The Syrian equalizer came a few seconds before the final whistle.
Syria was clearly the fitter team but India more determined. With every passing minute Syria calling the shots gained control. It was a calculated strategy by Syria, which relied on its endurance to enjoy greater possession.
It was vintage Ambedkar Stadium, every inch occupied long before the kick off. The gates to the stadium were shut even as India made early inroads into the Syrian half.
The crowd cheered as Baichung Bhutia shot and shot again from the rebound but found goalkeeper Mosab Balhous blocking his drives.
India pressed hard and continued to raise its game. Bhutia explored the turf with Chhetri but the finishing was poor. He was tightly marked by Hamzeh Alattouni, who did his job well. There was ambitious movement from Chhetri too. He, however, was not swift enough to break the defensive shield that Syria had constructed on the strength of the indefatigable Ali Dyan.
Tough to breach
Dyan was a wall that could not be breached. He was highly motivated and remarkably in place to stifle every Indian move. The only time he found himself in a tangle was the time when Bhutia, in the second minute, won the ball from him. Dyan was on the whole a picture of confidence.
The Indian midfield was gasping as Syria opened up avenues through the roving Moutaz Kaildni and Al Housian, the pick of the midfield. His task was to keep the ball rolling and the emphasis was no square passes. That put immense pressure on the Indian midfield.
Lawrence was unable to spray the ball on the wings where Dias too was not allowed to move freely. Dias did make his presence felt with a lovely free kick in the 47th minute that the Syrian goalkeeper just about managed to fist away.
The game got rough thereafter as the Syrians targeted Bhutia and
Chhetri. The Syrian coach, Fajer Ebrahim, did his bit to irritate the referee, Adil Ali of Maldives, with his constant questioning every time the whistle blew.
It needed a livid Bob Houghton, wagging his finger at his Syrian counterpart, to put a stop to the antics by Ebrahim. Later, one of the
Syrian officials was sent off in the extra time session.
India’s defence was overworked in the extended session. Gourmangi and Anwar failed to keep pace with Alaga’s dangerous forays. He hit the post once and drove the ball over, the ball missing the mark by inches. Syria was in complete control midway through the second half. The attacks grew in number and India was mostly reduced to defending.
Syria was daring in the second half. Midfielder Bakri Tarab was mostly parked in the Indian territory. The Indian penalty area was literally under siege, barring a counter-attack when Chhetri, chasing a cross from Dias, was locked in a one-on-one situation with the Syrian goalkeeper. Chetri got his foot, the goalkeeper was beaten, but the ball rolled past the post.
Moved by the ‘wonderful show’ by Bhutia and his men, the All India Football Federation president announced Rs 2 lakh each to every member of the team, including the support staff. He also personally gifted of Rs. 5 lakh each to Paul and Bhutia for their stellar role in this victory.
Now we know why Houghton loves Ambedkar Stadium. For the crowd. The full-throated support from the stands went a long way in propelling the Indian team to great heights tonight in a repeat of 2007 when it beat the same opponent in the Nehru Cup final.
India: Subroto Pal; Surkumar Singh, Gourmangi Singh, Anwar Ali and Mahesh Gawli; Steven Dias, Climax Lawrence, NP Pradeep (Mehrajuddin Wadoo) and Anthony Pereira (Renedy Singh); Sunil Chetri and Bhaichung Bhutia.
Syria: Mosab Balhous; Ali Dyab, Belal Abdul Dam, Feras Ismail and Hamzeh Alattouni; Bakri Tarab, Abdal Razak Al Housian, Moutaz Kalidini (Ahmad Haj Muhmad) and Wael Ayan; Mohamad Alzino (Raja Rafe) and Abdul Fatah Alaga.
Referee: Adil Ali (Maldives); Assistant referees: Mohammed Fareed (Maldives) and Aminul Islam Ripon (Bangladesh).