Steven Dias was the toast of Indian football on Wednesday night. He created the opportunities for Baichung Bhutia and Gourmangi Singh to score and then slammed one goal himself to leave a lasting mark on an encounter that kept India in the hunt for a place in the final of the Nehru Cup.

The 3-1 victory over Sri Lanka took India’s points tally to six, with a match against Syria in hand. Syria too has six points and plays Lebanon on Thursday. Lebanon, with four points, would look to win and expect India to lose its last match. Sri Lanka has three points from three matches. The competition is very much alive.

India took the lead only to squander it to a set-piece goal but Dias led the attack that left Sri Lanka frustrated. It was Dias’s day as his regal presence in the midfield meant that India was always on the prowl. His precise passing, often in the air, gave little respite to the Sri Lankan team.

Sri Lanka had its moments but the team lacked the cohesion and precision it displayed in the match against Lebanon. But then it had to contend with Bhutia, a man who is known to give his best when confronted with a do-or-die situation.

Bhutia at his best

Bhutia has been doing the job for 15 years now, scoring with deft flicks, booming drives and crafty headers. He has always loved the job, scoring a goal and proudly sprinting along the sideline, pumping his fists, sending the audience into delirium. There was just one such moment on Wednesday night. It was a splendidly executed strike by India’s most valuable 32-year-old on the football pitch.

India had built pressure gradually and there was a pattern in the attacks. Dias, who received support from Climax Lawrence and N.P. Pradeep, played havoc with the Sri Lankan defence with his electric runs on the flank. His was a crucial contribution towards India’s domination in the first half.

Back to Bhutia, the old warhorse with the tenacity of a young man. He conserved his energy to make some tactical movements. He kept his marker busy and allowed Dias and Sunil Chetri the freedom to keep the rival defence busy and guessing.

Few opportunities

Given India’s need to win this match and the team’s collective assaults, the scoreline should have been healthier than the one-goal lead the home side enjoyed at half time.

India had a few good opportunities early in the match. Anthony Perreira was late in reaching the ball even as Lawrence chipped the ball into the box.

Sri Lanka nearly fell into arrears when Dias produced a stinging free kick but Asanka Viraj did well to punch the ball. Dias probed again but this time he hit the bar.

Great ball

The first goal came in the 25th minute. From a counter-attack Surkumar latched on to the ball to flick it forward for Dias. It was admirable speed that saw Dias reach the ball and then his skill produced a gem of a floater that found Bhutia, who was well placed and unmarked, to head it in. Bhutia came close to scoring in the second half too when his header beat the goalkeeper but not the post.

Sri Lanka hit back from a header by Well Don Ruwanthileke in the 61st minute and a hush fell on the stadium. It became a roar eight minutes later when Dias floated the ball from a free kick and Pradeep followed it up to head strongly. The ball fell loose, as the Lankan goalkeeper fumbled, and Gourmangi darted in to tap it in.

Sixteen minutes later Dias signed off in style when he broke in and scored from the right edge of the box. It was a wonderful performance by Dias but strangely he was not adjudged the ‘man of the match’. The honour went to Bhutia.

Thursday’s match: Syria v Lebanon.

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