Riding on a Sunil Chhetri hat-trick, India on Wednesday thrashed defending champions Tajikistan 4-1 in the final of AFC Challenge Cup football tournament and qualified for the Asian Cup after a hiatus of 24 years.
Playing one of their best matches in the recent times, India outplayed its Central Asian rival in all departments of the game in the thrilling summit clash of the eight-nation Asia's second tier competition whose winners get a direct entry to the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Doha.
Chhetri, who had said before the match that the summit clash would be the most important 90 minutes of his career, stole the show on Wednesday by scoring in the ninth, 19th and 75th minutes, and giving opposition defence a torrid time with numerous solo runs.
Inspirational India captain Baichung Bhutia added another goal for the hosts in the 23rd minute under floodlights at the Ambedkar Stadium to give India their third entry in the continental elite stage.
India last played in the Asian Cup in 1984 under Yugoslav coach Ciric Milovan with players of calibre like Shabbir Ali, Subrata Bhattacharya, Krishanu Dey and Prasanta Banerjee in the team.
Before that they were runners up in 1964 in Israel where the hosts defeated India in the final.
However, India on Wednesday perhaps found inspiration from the Nehru Cup victory last August at the same ground. They must also be thanking the weather Gods as incessant rains in Hyderabad had forced the AFC to shift the match from there to Ambedkar Stadium which again looked festive with spectators almost filling up the 20000 capacity stadium.
The home team surged ahead under controversial circumstances through Chhetri from a move initiated by Renedy Singh's corner.
Central defender Gouramangi Singh connected the corner but found the right upright on the way for Steven Dias to essay a fine cross from the right for Chhetri to slam home.
The crowd was stunned after Uzbek referee Valentin Kovalenko did not immediately award a goal doubting it was offside. The stadium, however, erupted after the referee awarded the goal to the hosts after consultation with the assistant referee Mohammed Jabar Dharman from Qatar.
The Tajiks protested and play was held up for a couple of minutes, and the Tajik coach Pulod Kodirov had a nasty exchange of words with the referee during the interval.
Cheered by the crowd at every move, India cushioned their lead in the 19th minute with Baichung scoring a gem of a goal. The Indian captain found the net with a wonderfully struck left footer, connecting a Chhetri low pass from the left edge of the box, which flew past the Tajik goalkeeper Alisher Tuychiev's left.
Four minutes later, India made it 3-0 with Chhetri producing an innocuous looking shot from 25 yards but it beat the diving Tajik custodian all ends up to the surprise of the crowd.
The Tajiks had a couple of shots in the first session but Indian goalkeeper Subrata Paul was up to his task including a fine save of a Naim Nasimov long ranger.
In the 44th minute, Fatkhullo Fatkhuloev reduced the margin for Tajikistan through a looping volley from the edge of the box which beat the India custodian all ends up.
Next minute, India almost reciprocated but the long ranger from Mehrajuddin Wadoo, who replaced N P Pradeep in the 36th minute, hit the right post and bounced back into play.
The Tajiks did not give up and the second half saw a couple of goal-bound shots from them.
In the 52nd minute, Paul had to snatch the ball from the feet of striker Dzhomikhon Muhidinov and in the very next minute, following a defensive lapse, Muhidinov almost scored from his feeble shot that went past diving Paul but Anwar Ali was there to clear it out for the home team.
In the 64th minute, a Steven Dias corner from the right found Gouramangi's head but it missed the target by a whisker.
Five minutes later, Paul came to the rescue of India once again after a diving header by Tajik star striker Yusuf Rabiev from a Eradzh Radzhabov free kick could not beat the Indian custodian.
India's last strike was another gem of a goal with Chhetri bringing the ball all alone inside the opposition box by outrunning his marker before releasing the ball for Baichung who in turn relayed it for his strike partner in front of the goal.
Chhetri then won the ball from Tajik goalkeeper and slotted home into an empty net to the wild celebrations of the home crowd.
Skipper Baichung, who had led his team from the front in India's victory with three goals to his credit, was voted as the most valuable player of the tournament.
India also won the AFC fair play award while DPR Korea's Pak Song Chol won the highest scorer award for scoring six goals.
Earlier, dead ball specialist Chol scored a hat-trick to guide DPR Korea to a 4-0 victory over Myanmar in the third place play-off match.
Chol found the target in the ninth, 11th and 43rd minutes while Ro Hak Su chipped in one in the 53rd minute.
The Koreans, ranked highest at 94th in the FIFA charts, had brought a second string team.