Captain Baichung Bhutia struck twice in the second half to hand India a 2-1 victory over Turkmenistan in their last Group A match and ensure a semifinal berth in the AFC Challenge Cup football tournament in Hyderabad on Sunday.
In what may be called as the best match of the tournament so far played under heavy ground conditions at the Gachibowli Stadium, the 32-year-old Indian skipper showed his class to score in the 54th and 80th minute to take the hosts at the top of Group A with seven points from two wins and one draw.
However, Turkmenistan reduced the margin in the 82nd minute through second half substitute Yusup Orazmamedov.
Tajikistan, with five points, is the other team from the group to progress to the last four stage. They thrashed Afghanistan 4-0 in another match played simultaneously at the Lal Bahadur Stadium, while Turkmenistan ended at four points from one win, a draw and a loss.
India will take on the second placed team from Group B in the semifinals on Thursday.
India's back four were spot on and the midfield up to the task with forwards Baichung and Sunil Chhetri creating havoc whenever the hosts raided the rival defence.
Goalkeeper Subrata Paul continued his good form in the tournament and was outstanding under the bar.
In the first half, India and Turkmenistan made several goal-bound moves at both ends and on many occasions both the sides were lucky to escape unscathed.
There were hardly any minute which did not produce a close shave or a fine defence-splitting pass or a cross from the flanks, though the hosts gradually stamped their authority as the match progressed.
Backed by 3000-odd crowd, the best attendance so far at the Gachibowli Stadium, the Indians played their hearts out and could have gone ahead in the first half itself only to see the crosspiece coming for Turkmenistan's rescue.
The first scoring chance though came from Turkmenistan in the fourth minute of the match but Dovletmurad Atayev's pass from the right edge of box was shot over by Berdy Shamuradov from inside.
Four minutes later, India got a free kick around 25 yard from the rival goal but Surkumar Singh was off target and in the very next minute N P Pradeep, after being fed by Chhetri, shot straight to Turkmenistan goalkeeper Maksatmyrat Shamuradov.
India then had two dangerous moves in quick succession with Baichung and Chhetri working in tandem. First, in the 20th minute, the Indian skipper failed to hold on to the ball in a tussle with the rival goalkeeper after he was sent clear by Chhetri.
Three minutes later, the two Indian strikers threatened the Turkmen citadel but that move resulted to a corner.
In between, hosts goalkeeper Paul thwarted attempts by Vyaceslav Krendelev and Mekan Nasyrov in quick succession.
India's best chance to take the lead came in the 29th minute from a move initiated by Chhetri. Renedy Singh sent a floater inside a crowded box for Baichung to have a glancing backward header which hit the crossbar after Turkmenistan custodian Shamuradov managed to get a hand. Later, a first time right footer by Climax Lawrence from the rebound was, however, blocked by a defender.
Eight minutes from the breather, Pradeep almost scored but his shot from a Renedy pass hit the outstretched hands of the rival goalkeeper.
Houghton continued with the same players after the barren first half and got success eighth minute after the breather with Baichung finding the target.
Chhetri chested down a loose ball in the Turkmenistan half and passed it to Baichung whose left footer beat the diving rival goalkeeper and rolled into the right corner of the net to the wild celebrations of the home crowd.
The Sikkimese Sniper completed his brace 10 minutes from time by making a glancing header from a Renedy corner kick.
Turkmenistan reduced the margin within two minutes through Yusup Orazmamedov but it was too late in the day to stop India from winning.