After his plea requesting fans to pack the stadium went viral, India team captain Sunil Chhetri let his boots do the talking as he and strike partner Jeje Lalpekhlua both were on target as the Blue Tigers beat a profligate Kenya side 3-0 in a rain-marred Hero Intercontinental Cup tie in Mumbai on Monday.
Years of under performance at the international level have led to many disillusioned fans who would rather watch the world’s best play from the comfort of their homes than watch their own countrymen.
Yet, as Chhetri said on the eve of his 100th cap, the change has to start somewhere and backed by some raucous fans, Stephen Constantine’s men sought to unsettle the African visitors from the off.
However, the torrential downpour didn’t help the hosts’ cause as Kenya looked like the stronger of the sides in the first-half.
They always looked dangerous with the ball, with their simple but effective strategy of putting the ball into the box causing the Indian defence all sorts of problems.
As it were, India had the best chance of the first 45 minutes, when a loose ball came their skipper’s way and with the rival keeper out of the goal, Chhetri let fly but his shot nestled on top of the net, much to the dismay of the partisan crowd.
The rain let up as the interval approached, but the second-half saw the Indians live dangerously as twice the Kenyan attackers were in a one-on-one situation with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
Whether it was the Indian keeper’s 6’6 frame or the fact that the humid conditions had robbed them of the nerve, but they contrived to place their efforts off target.
It wasn’t just the keeper though, as the likes of Sandesh Jhinghan were busy from minute 1-90 as they just about kept the powerful Kenyan forwards at bay.
India started to get back into the game and Chhetri would fluff a relatively easy chance and there was a growing unease around the ground that he may not be able to make it an evening to remember with a winning strike.
Those fears were unfounded as India were awarded a contentious penalty with little over 20 minutes to go and their skipper cooly converted his effort to bring up his 100th cap in style.
The Kenyans didn’t know what had hit them and the wind was knocked out of them when Lalpekhlua’s powerful shot from inside the box rifled into the back of the net lite.
There was to be a final flourish on the night as India caught the visitors cold on the counter and it just had to be Chhetri who would be the man to hammer the final nail on the coffin with the most delicate chip you’ll ever see.
After their 5-0 romp over Chinese Taipei and Monday’s win over Kenya, India are effectively through to the knockouts of the Intercontinental Cup and it would take a brave man to bet against them from going all the way.