Captain Sunil Chhetri stamped his class yet again as he scored the match-winner to fire India to a 1-0 win over Kyrgyzstan in a fast-pace and entertaining AFC Asian Cup qualifier match in Bengaluru on Tuesday. Chhetri drilled a lot shot with his right foot off a fine pass from Jeje Lalpekhlua in the 69th minute to lead India to a crucial win in the home leg tie of the Group A third round qualifiers of the 2019 Asian Cup.
Chhetri, who scored his 54th goal in his 94th match, led from the front throughout the match. Playing behind the lone striker Jeje, he was in the thick of things, at times falling back deep to help the defenders, setting up his team-mates and also taking shots on his own.
With the win, India sat atop the group with six points - from two wins - ahead of Kyrgyzstan and Myanmar who both have three points from two matches. Macau are yet to open account from their two matches.
All the four teams will play home and away matches and the two top sides will qualify for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup to be held in United Arab Emirates.
The hosts, who had beaten Myanmar 1-0 in their first match of the qualifiers, notched up their seventh official international match on the trot.
Kyrgyzstan had better ball possession and more attack but they found wanting in their finishing. The Indian back-four of Sandesh Jhingan, Anas Edathodika, Pritam Kotal and Narayan Das were also superb in defending.
The visiting side were denied by the upright in the second half while Indian goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu made at least three brilliant saves to ensure that the hosts walked away with all three points.
Kyrgyzstan, who are ranked at 132 as against India's 100, suffered a jolt as soon as the match started with their key midfielder Anton Zemilanukhin being stretchered out after a collision with Gurpreet in the fourth minute. Edgar Bernhardt took his place.
India took the lead in the 69th minute against the run of play. In a quick counter-attack, Chhetri got the better of at least three Kyrgyz players at the middle of the park and then sent the ball for Jeje. The striker lobbed the ball beautifully over a Kyrgyz defender to find his darting skipper, who made no mistake in firing his shot past the goalkeeper to send the crowd into a frenzy.
India could have won the match with a better margin but for the two chances they wasted in the additional injury time of four minutes.
India's next match is against Macau, an away game, on September 5.