New Delhi: India in a vastly improved performance defeated their bugbear Maldives 3-1 to enter their third successive SAFF Cup football final here at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Friday.
Five times champions India await the winners of the other semifinal between Afghanistan and Nepal in Sunday's title clash.
India were impressive and pressed hard right from the start. They should have scored much earlier than their live-wire wing-back Syed Rahim Nabi did in the 23rd minute.
The Maldives equaliser in the 60th minute was spectacular, a booming long-ranger by Shamweel Qasim giving no chance to the Indian goalkeeper. Eight minutes later, India struck a second time through Sunil Chettri from a penalty and he scored again in the injury time. He is now the leading scorer with six goals.
The decisive victory must have been all the more satisfying for India as the Maldvies had beaten India twice in the last three encounters.
The Maldives were not at their fighting best as their pivotal playmaker Ali Ashfaq was half-fit and he could not pull his weight in the mid-field. The Maldivian captain had to even leave the field for a while in the first half for medical attention.
India got into the attacking mode right from the kick-off and should have scored in the second minute itself, if only striker Jeje Lalpeklua had not shot over with an open net in front.
Nabi, who has been one of the most outstanding players of the tournament, was impressive on the left and set up Jeje again, but the striker's header was saved brilliantly by Maldives goalkeeper Imran Mohammed.
The Maldives defence finally cracked under relentless attack. Miranda made a brilliant run down the right and lobbed it to his left for Jeje, who missed it, but Nabi came from behind to chip in and give India the lead.
After the breather, India kept up the pressure but the Maldives were good on the counterattack. Defender Akram Abdul Gani latched on to a ball from the centre and ran down the right and from the back-line gave a pin-point pass for Qasim to unleash a thundering right-footer from the top of the box to leave goalkeeper Karanjit Singh helplessly gaping as the ball bulged the net.
For the Maldives, the hope of making a comeback into the match was short-lived as Gani fouled Chettri inside the box and Kyrgyztsan referee Timur Faizullin had no hesitation in awarding the penalty. Chettri made no mistake.
The local boy scored his second goal in the injury time latching on to a through ball from Jeje. Chettri dodged past the defenders and shot it past the onrushing goalkeeper to end the game in style for India.
Maldives lost a man in the last minute after Ahmed Thariq was red carded for making an offensive gesture to the referee.