'The best 45 minutes from India in the last five decades.'
Igor Stimac's description of India's 2-0 win over Lebanon in the final of the 2023 Intercontinental Cup had plenty of hyperbole, but the Croatian was right in pointing out that this was a game of two halves. An attritional opening forty-five was followed by goals from Sunil Chhetri (46') and Lallianzuala Chhangte (65') in the second half - that gave India their first win over Lebanon since 1977 and the second trophy in Stimac's reign after the 2021 SAFF Championship.
The first half began with Stimac's famed high-press - as India snapped into tackles and were full of running. Ashique Kuruniyan's endeavour was almost rewarded as he was clipped by Hussein Zein amidst furious appeals for a penalty, but the referee waved them away - correctly. Despite the intense pressing, there was little of note as the half progressed, with India easing off and failing to have a shot on target in the first 45.
It was quite the reverse just a minute into the second half as Sunil Chhetri gave India the lead with his 87th international goal. Nikhil Poojary was instrumental with an ingenious backheel flick on the right touchline that nutmegged his marker and found Lallianzuala Chhangte, who used a stepover to get past his marker and slide in a low cross for Chhetri to slide home.
With Lebanon now forced to attack, gaps started to appear, and substitutes Naorem Mahesh Singh and Rohit Kumar took advantage. Chhangte began the move for the second goal, pouncing and spreading the ball to Chhetri in the middle, who spread it wide to Mahesh on the left side of the box. The winger hammered a shot across goal, but Ali Sabeh could only palm it back into danger - where Chhangte was on hand to poke home from two yards out.
India's defence reigned supreme for the rest of the game, with Sandesh Jhingan and Anwar Ali at hand to deny Hassan Maatouk's efforts to grab a goal back. Eventually, India earned their sixth consecutive clean sheet and the victory.
Igor Stimac was typically frank after the game, saying "Each game is important, each win is important, especially keeping clean sheets. That's another victory for us. But I need to tell you I was very p***ed off at half-time. It's better you don't know what I told them in the dressing room. Nothing to do with what we were working on. After a good opening ten minutes, we disappeared from the pitch and that is unacceptable. It seemed to me like they were not aware of how much they are capable of running, sprinting and tackling these Lebanese players. We shouldn't allow them to control the game for 20 minutes. That's why I was angry."
"But then, the reaction in the second half, come on, this is the best Indian 45 minutes in the last five decades, I think. There is plenty of work in front of us. We need to understand better our positioning, timing for the runs, when to chip the ball... Lebanon had seven or eight good transitions today and that is only because we were sloppy with the pass, and that cannot happen when you go to play against Australia, Uzbekistan and these sides. So, plenty of work in front of us."
"Now the question what we are going to raise. How much time are we going to get? How much time are these boys going to get to prepare well? There's never enough time, that I can tell you. It's not important how we play today, it's important how we play in January, that's important for the team."
Sunil Chhetri meanwhile, said "We needed a wake up call at half-time - a lot of words were spoken, some of which I can't repeat here - but thankfully we reacted. We knew we had them in our tank and we spoke about having no regrets after the game."
"We are trying our best to improve. Wins like these really help. We've enjoyed this tournament - to win a tournament at home is always sweet, it is not easy. The biggest happiness we have is keeping a clean sheet - I'm sure the boys and the coaching staff are happy about that."
You can relive the action from the final below.
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