AIFF Media Team
BENGALURU: The 19,640-strong crowd at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium were witness to an anxious evening on Saturday.
Referee Sinan Hussain's whistle at the end of 120 and more minutes signalled the first time an India game would head to penalties in over a decade. The Nehru Cup final in 2012 was the last time, ending in a 5-4 victory for the Blue Tigers over Cameroon in Delhi. The story unfolded no differently in Bengaluru.
India were clinical, dispatching all four of their spot-kicks to perfection. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu's left arm kept out Hassan Maatouk's first penalty for Lebanon, and India would not let go of that advantage for the rest of the shoot-out.
"His save gave a lot of confidence to our players, who came to take the next penalties. It was the players' decision (to step up for penalties). They have freedom. Whoever has the confidence goes up to take the penalties," said assistant coach Mahesh Gawali.
For the man of the moment, Gurpreet, it was "another magical night."
"Playing at the Kanteerava, my Bengaluru FC home ground, in national team colours is always special. I'm really proud of the grit, determination and fight the boys have shown," he said.
Shoot-outs may be rare to come by on the international stage, but the Indian custodians are no strangers to these situations, as every training session involves penalty practice.
"We're lucky to have such good penalty-takers in our team, which helps during training," said Gurpreet.
"As a goalkeeper, all I want to do is make the penalty-taker's job tough. I try to stay big until the last moment, choose a side and get a hand to the ball. You can't save every penalty. But you try to know what the taker is thinking. Someone will try to trick you, someone will come with a pre-decided shot. The experience and physicality help. If I'm five-foot-four, I wouldn't have saved that penalty, for sure," he explained.
After Sunil Chhetri routinely converted his penalty, as he did in 2012, the next one to step up was Anwar Ali. The 22-year-old's mistake had cost India the win over Kuwait four days ago, but was cool as a cucumber yesterday as he sent the goalkeeper the wrong way to take his team another step closer to the final.
"Anwar is a brilliant talent, a top-class defender and a future star of the national team. He is very intelligent, agile, good with both feet, and his confidence level is very high," commented Gawali.
But before all those nervy moments from 12 yards out, there were two hours of fight for tooth and nail for one elusive winning goal. Lebanon were stronger off the blocks, almost taking India by surprise with their lightning-quick start, but the hosts gradually took control after weathering the initial storm. Domination in all aspects but lack of chance conversion, however, remains a worry for the Blue Tigers.
"I think we were sloppy in the first 15 minutes, but after that, we dominated the entire match. Our intensity was the same until the 120th minute. The credit goes to the boys as they played very well. We could've scored three or four goals with the chances we had," said Gawali.
"Lebanon read us very well during the early stages of the game. They came with a good plan, were very quick and utilised the wings well. But our boys controlled the game after that and slowly gained confidence," he added.
India have played eight matches in the last 22 days, including four in the humid Bhubaneswar weather. Despite the tight schedule, there have been almost no fitness issues in the squad, and a big credit for that goes to strength and conditioning coach Luka Radman.
"A lengthy camp is always helpful. We've been together for more than 50 days. Our strength and conditioning coach Luka, has done a wonderful job maintaining the players' fitness. We had no cramps and injuries in 120 minutes, and are all set for the final," said Gawali.
Time to rest and recover for the Blue Tigers now. On Tuesday, standing between them and a ninth SAFF Championship title will be Kuwait, who were also taken into extra time by Bangladesh in the first semi-final. And if the group-stage encounter is anything to go by, India are in for a cracking finale at the Kanteerava.
"It was a good match against Kuwait last time out," said Anirudh Thapa, whose assist from the corner for Chhetri opened the scoring in that game. "The final is going to be tough. We need to be physically and mentally ready for it," he said.