Defending champion India dished out yet another lacklustre performance to go down 2-1 against host Nepal but still managed to sail through to the semifinals of the SAFF Football Championships here on Thursday.
The six-time champion was clearly the inferior side in its last Group A match at a packed Dasarath Stadium and it was lucky to make it to the last four stage after Pakistan beat Bangladesh 2-1 in another simultaneous match.
Anil Gurung and Jumanu Rai scored in the 70th and 81st minute for Nepal, while Syed Rahim Nabi pulled one back for India in stoppage time (92nd minute) with an impressive side volley.
India and Pakistan ended on four points behind Nepal, which garnered seven points from two wins and one draw, but Wim Koevermans’ men qualified for the semifinals as the group runner-up having beaten Pakistan in the head-to-head encounter.
In the semifinals, India will play the other group winner to be decided after Friday’s match between Maldives and Afghanistan.
The two are on six points each after winning both their earlier matches.
In Thursday’s match, 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 times.
The first goal was a result of a set-piece movement that sent the Indian defence in a disarray.
Sandeep Rai floated a cross-field ball and in the melee, Indian custodian Subrata Paul charged out. Biraj Maharajan beat his marker Mondal to head the delivery, which hit the horizontal, and Gurung, lurking around, tapped the ball home.
The Indian defenders, especially Nirmal, couldn’t match up to the speed of left-winger Rabin Shreshta who set up the second goal in the 81st minute.
He overlapped down the wide left beating Nirmal and then sent a low cross which saw Jumanu evade Mondal to place an accurate angular left footer into the net.
India pulled one back at the stroke of final whistle when Jewel Raja Sheikh hoodwinked one of the Nepalese backs with an outside dodge and essayed a centre which saw Nabi find the net with an airborne side volley.
India was dealt a telling blow as skipper Chhetri, who is having a horrible tournament, will remain suspended for the semifinal after picking up his second yellow card on the day.
Robin Singh is expected to start in place of Chhetri in the last four clash.
According to FIFA records, Thursday’s result was the only second win for Nepal against India in 12 matches.
The earlier win was through a penalty shootout in the 1993 SAF Games in Dhaka.