SAFF Championship: 89th-minute own goal, late lapse leaves India with 1-1 draw against Kuwait


All Anwar Ali could do was look straight ahead and give away a wry smile. An Indian defensive line that had spent the last eight of their national games keeping a clean sheet (a record that has stood since June 2022), gave away that cherished record in the most lackadaisical of manners – an 89th-minute own goal from the central defender.

Unhurried and unpressured, Ali, who had spent most of the night holding the tightest of vigils, succumbed to a lapse in concentration. An attempt to hoof the ball away from the Indian box turned into a weighty slice, one that lofted into the goal and reduced them to a draw they didn’t deserve. India, who looked to lead the group with a win against Kuwait on Tuesday, had to end up seething with a draw that put them second in their group on goal difference.

Kuwait is a prime example of why FIFA rankings should be taken with a pinch of salt. Three FIFA bans have essentially put the country farther back in the rankings at 143 – 42 spots behind India. On an eight-game win streak – part of which has seen them beat the United Arab Emirates and take a draw from Bahrain – Kuwait was seen as the toughest team at these SAFF Championships for India. Before the game began, Indian coach Igor Stimac had spoken about how the gulf country’s ranking was probably somewhere in the 75-80 mark.

And yet, this Indian team looked far better than their opponents on the night.

Starting with intent

Five minutes in, Igor Stimac’s team was already looking up for it. A quick ball won in the midfield saw left-back Akash Mishra released with virtually no one guarding him. The low ping that Mishra zapped into the box almost met Sunil Chhetri, who was just a step behind the ball as it whizzed past the Kuwait box.

The play would find repeat iterations through the first half. The common factor: an Indian midfield pressing move – executed efficiently and then capitalised on with a ball sent to the wings. That ball would then be pinged into the box – no crosses that would place uncharacteristic expectations on Chhetri to meet — but rather grounded, swift balls that would narrowly miss the Indian striker or be cleared by Kuwait’s scampering backline.

The first twenty minutes of the first half were a matter of either India not being able to find a quality through ball in the final third, or an inability to shoot fast enough before the Kuwait defence managed to block any glimpses of the goal.

But it was the team playing in the SAFF Championship for the first time who came inches away from scoring in the 24th minute. A through ball from Shabib Al Khaldi into the Indian box was met by Md Abdullah Daham, who shot to the right of goalkeeper Amrinder Singh. Singh met the shot with his body and saved the ball but the attempt was called an offside by the referee. Kuwait may have had the better chance but India held more control in midfield.

It was only as the half dwindled to a close that that pressure materialised.

An Anirudh Thapa corner saw the Indian players overload on the near post of the Kuwait goal. Thapa launched the ball in – one that was more towards the edge of the box, rather than towards goal. Chhetri, unmarked, almost hiding behind a wall of bodies, found himself with no one guarding him and volleyed the ball into the back of the net. India walked away from the first half with a goal they played for and rightfully deserved.

The second half began for the home team similar to how they ended the first – attacking the opposition midfield for possession and then quickly releasing the ball, looking to hit on the counter. Amidst the jostle between both teams, Igor Stimac managed to find time to get himself carded yet again (second time in three games), but mercifully the referee brandished only a yellow (more on that later).

Heated battle

The intensity with which the home team were looking to win midfield battles dulled as the second half chugged along. Gone was the urgency to win every ball and make something out of that possession. Kuwait would come close with a couple of close chances – one in the 75th minute that needed Sandesh Jhingan to stretch way beyond his means to complete a perfectly legal last-man challenge. A few minutes later, Stimac, who had spent the half pestering the fourth official, managed to earn his second marching orders in three games. He will now miss the semi-final of the SAFF Championship.

Stimac’s dismissal was one more loose screw in the Indian metal wall that slowly kept coming apart. There was a loose challenge from Sahal Abdul Samad – one that got the already irate Kuwaitis to a fresher level of indignation. Bodies were bumped into and players were shoved. By the time cooler heads prevailed, the referee had sent off Hamad Al Qallaf and Rahim Ali.

If the Indian coach’s dismissal and two players on the field being shown red in the last ten minutes of the match wasn’t enough theatre, Anwar Ali provided the final touches of India’s complete lapse in concentration towards the end of the match. Their commendable record of not allowing a goal in for over a year – all dropped in a moment of lethargy.


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