Monday 07 January 2019, 09:31

Talisman Chhetri fires history-making India

  • India claimed biggest AFC Asian Cup win and first since 1964

  • Record scorer Sunil Chhetri bagged a brace to surpass Lionel Messi

  • Chhetri: “We will fight till the end”

Sunil Chhetri has long been an Indian icon. But if his place in this vast nation’s football folklore was not already assured, he carved it in stone with a decisive double in yesterday’s 4-1 win over Thailand at the AFC Asian Cup.

This wasn’t just any victory, after all. It was India’s first at the AFC Asian Cup since 1964, their biggest in the competition’s history - and it took them to the summit of Group A. No wonder, then, that Chhetri was glowing with pride as he spoke in the wake of this momentous, battling triumph.

“You can see the jubilation and happiness,” he said. “I am so happy for the boys. Every one of them ran and defended for their lives.

“I didn’t know [that this was our first Asian Cup win in 55 years]. It feels good because it is a tough pool. When we started thinking about, we felt that all the other teams were more experienced and better than us. But the manner the boys fought shows a lot of character.

“I have said this before: we are a very difficult team to play against. We may not be the most technical team but we will fight till the end, and that’s what the boys showed.”

Chhetri’s double – a clinically dispatched penalty followed by a superb shot into the roof of the net – also succeeded in making waves far beyond Asia. The reason is that, in topping up his already-record tally to 67, India’s all-time leading scorer moved between two modern-day titans.

Leading international goalscorers (players still active) Cristiano Ronaldo: 85 Sunil Chhetri: 67 Lionel Messi: 65

But the 34-year-old has been in the game long enough to know the dangers of basking in such achievements. “I can think about my goals some ten years later,” he remarked yesterday. “At the moment, we need to focus. The goals need to come and it just doesn’t matter who scores.”

The veteran striker knows that, while India have already made history in UAE, bigger challenges and potentially greater achievements lie in wait.

Next up is a showdown with the hosts before the Blue Tigers conclude their group campaign against Bahrain, to whom they lost 5-2 in the 2011 Asian Cup. Chhetri, who played - and scored - in that defeat, says only matching their opening-match intensity will maintain India’s hopes of an unlikely place in the knockout stage.

“It will be difficult as all the three teams are really good,” he said. “You saw how UAE and Bahrain played [in a 1-1 draw in the tournament’s opening match]. Bahrain were so good, UAE are the home side and they are technically good. For us, every game is a fight.”

Axe falls on Rajevac While Chhetri and India live to fight another day, Milovan Rajevac’s involvement in the tournament has come to a premature end. The now-former Thailand coach, who famously led Ghana to the quarter-finals of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, was sacked within hours of the shock 4-1 loss.

The 65-year-old Serbian, who had acknowledged that his side had “under-performed” and that the Indians’ victory was “absolutely deserved”, had been in the job since April 2017. But the end of his reign was confirmed in a statement by FA Thailand president Somyot Poompanmoung, who said: “The result is not what is expected of the Thai national team and what our supporters deserve.”

Sirisak Yodyardthai, Rajevac’s erstwhile assistant, will now hold the position of interim head coach for the remainder of the tournament, beginning with the Thais’ Group A match against Bahrain on Thursday.