Young stopper Arnab Mondal scored his maiden international goal as defending champions India beat Maldives 1-0 to enter the final of the SAFF Football Championship for the ninth time here on Monday. (This is how good India can be, says coach Wim Koevermans)
The win, which Wim Koevermans' boys achieved without their skipper Sunil Chhetri, meant that India made it to their fifth successive final in the tournament and will meet Afghanistan in the final on Wednesday.
Mondal, the lad from Kolkata's Behala region, was a bundle of nerves throughout the match but turned out to be an unlikely hero in the end with a delightful strike.
The winner came in the 85th minute when Mehtab Hossain's corner from the right flank was neatly headed down by Syed Rahim Nabi and Mondal, who had joined the attack, struck a powerful angular right-footer that crashed into the net.
The final whistle saw some ugly scenes as Maldives substitute Ali Umar attacked referee Idham Mohammed and was red-carded after the match. But it did not stop there as a group of Maldives players attacked one of the organisers and police personnel were called to intervene as things looked like getting out of hand.
Maldives' striker Ali Ashfaq was tied down for most part of the match with India employing zonal marking with makeshift captain Gourmangi Singh giving a good account of himself. Maldives created a bit of pressure from set-piece movements giving some anxious moments to Indian custodian Subrata Paul.
In the second minute, Maldives got a free-kick and Mohammed Sifan's low delivery which evaded the wall saw Paul fumble trying to gather it on the bounce but forward Mohammed Umair's shot went straight to the goalie.
Another anxious moment came in the 27th minute when Ashfaq's left-footed inswinging free-kick was nicely parried away by Paul.
It was a goalless first half but India played with some intent unlike their horrible show against Nepal. Jeje Lalpeklhua, operating from wide left, tried to make inroads while Arata Izumi, in central midfield, worked tirelessly helping in build ups and acting as a snatcher also.
Playing with a single striker in Robin Singh meant that he was mostly left alone upfront as Indians could not penetrate in the opposition's 18-yard box too many times.
The Indian team's strategy of employing rough tactics against opposition dangerman Ashfaq worked partially as he did not get enough room to manoeuvre.
The Indians had a nice build up in the 42nd minute with Francis Fernandes delivering a defence splitting pass to Robin Singh who in turn kept it for Arata. The Japanese-born Indian set up a sitter for Mehtab Hossain who was, however, way off the target.
The Indians started with lot more purpose in the second half as Francis dodged past two defenders but his feeble shot did not pose any problem for the Maldives goalkeeper.
Maldives tried to hit back on the counter in the 55th minute with Ashfaq penetrating through the left but Gouramangi timed his sliding tackle to perfection to avert danger. In between there were a couple of cracks at the Indian goal but Paul was equal to the task.
In the 72nd minute, it was a narrow escape for India as Nirmal Chhetri's defensive error saw Ashfaq entering the box and Paul coming out of his charge. The Maldives striker fell down demanding a penalty but Jordanian referee Idham Mohammed turned it down.