New Delhi: An inconsistent India lacked the cutting edge as they were held to a 1-1 draw by a spirited Afghanistan in their opening match of the SAFF Football Championship at New Delhi on Saturday.
Star striker Sunil Chhetri found the net on his return from Glasgow Rangers but fluffed a sitter in the second half as India's hopes of kicking off their campaign with a win went up in smoke.
Balal Arezo stunned the hosts when he fired in a volley from inside the box just four minutes into the match, before Chhetri cancelled out the lead six minutes later with a clean header off a Steven Dias corner.
Afghanistan thereafter, led by the striking duo of Arezo and Sanjar Ahmadi, troubled the Indians with their sporadic raids. Both were aided by wingers Waheed Ahmad and Mohammad Esrafi dow the flanks.
India, on the other hand, were found wanting when it came to wing-play against the minnows.
The normally accurate Dias did manage to deliver some useful crosses from the right but his partner on the left, Clifford Miranda's performance was below par and that did hurt the hosts, raked 162nd in the world as against Aghanistan's 178th, the lowest in the eight-nation tournament.
It was no surprise when Afghanistan went ahead, exposing the chinks in India's armour. Miranda was nowhere to be seen as Arezo, running down the left flank, picked up a loose ball from the experienced Mahesh Gawli to slot home past Indian custodian Karanjit Singh.
There was an opening for India soon after but Chhetri's attempt was too feeble to trouble the visitors. But the Delhi footballer, back from a brief stint at Scottish Giants Glasgow Rangers along with his strike partner Jeje Lalpekhula, did not fumble the second time as he leaped to head one from the near post.
For a while, India seemed to have found their bearings but they were not consistent enough to maintain the pressure on the greenhorns.
Around the half hour mark, Miranda, after receiving a cross from Dias, failed to put the ball into the net.
If his earlier effort went over the bar, the Dempo winger spurned another chance after he was put through by skipper Climax Lawrence with only the goalkeeper to beat.
While lack of finishing did not help India's cause, the hosts were lucky to survive as Karanjit came off the line to deny Arezo.
This was after Haroon Fakhrudin, the Afghan skipper, dribbled past four Indians to find Arezo whose shot was blocked by the Indian custodian.
Moments later, Karanjit was in action again as he denied Fakhrudin after he beat Lawrence.
In between, just before the lemon break, Dias' curling cross was intercepted by goalkeeper Hameedullah Yousufzari.
The second half started on a brisk note as both sides looked to score the winner. India appealed for a handball by Moqadar Faizullah, which was turned down by Malaysian referee Nagor Amir, leaving coach Savio Medeira livid.
India had a golden opportunity to go ahead 10 minutes into the second half, but Chhetri failed to make use of Lawrence's cross with his wayward shot. After that it was Miranda again who could not control Chhetri's lob, allowing Faizullah to make the clearance.
Jeje looked tired and the only time he got a chance, through Syed Rahim Nabi, the striker's header went wide. India survived a scare towards the end but Karanjit just about managed to parry Sanjar Ahmadi's attempt after he prised open the Indian defence.
Medeira substituted Miranda with Lalrindika Ralte a few minutes before the final whistle but that was too late for the young midfielder to make an impact.