Defending champions India dished out yet another lacklustre performance to go down 1-2 against hosts Nepal but still managed to sail through to the semi-finals of the SAFF Football Championships in Kathmandu on Thursday.
The six-time champions were clearly the inferior side in their last Group A match at a packed Dasarath Stadium and they were lucky to make it to the last four stage after Pakistan beat Bangladesh 2-1 in another simultaneous match.
For Nepal, who were cheered by a vociferous home crowd, Anil Gurung and Jumanu Rai scored in the 70th and 81st minutes while Syed Rahim Nabi pulled one back for India in the stoppage time (92nd minute) with an impressive side volley.
India and Pakistan ended on four points behind Group A toppers Nepal -- who garnered seven points from two wins and one draw -- but Wim Koevermans' men qualified for the semi-finals as group runners-up having beaten Pakistan in the head-to-head encounter.
A lucky India had beaten Pakistan 1-0 in their campaign opener thanks to an own goal by their rival skipper before escaping with a 1-1 draw against Bangladesh with captain Sunil Chhetri scoring an injury time equaliser.
According to tournament rules, if two teams are on equal points in the group stage, head-to-head result will first decide which team goes through to the next stage and the goal difference rule comes to play only after this. In case of India, since they have beaten Pakistan earlier, there is no need to look at goal difference.
In the semi-finals, India will play the Group A winners which will be decided after Friday’s match between Maldives and Afghanistan, who are on six points each after winning both their earlier matches.
Thursday’s result was the only second win for Nepal against India in 12 matches in all-time head-to-head contests, according to FIFA records. The earlier win by Nepal was through penalty shootout in the 1993 SAF Games in Dhaka after the two sides were locked 2-2 after regulation and extra time.
The Indian defence was time and again tested by the likes of Gurung and Rai as Arnab Mondal, N Mohanraj and Nirmal Chhetri were chasing shadows most of the times.
The first goal was a result of set-piece move that sent the Indian defence in a disarray. In the 70th minute, Sandeep Rai floated a cross-field ball and in the melee, Indian custodian Subrata Paul charged out.
Biraj Maharajan beat his marker Mondal to head the delivery which hit the horizontal and Gurung, lurking around, just tapped home to give his team 1-0 lead.
The Indian defenders, especially Nirmal, couldn't match up to the speed of left-winger from Nepal, Rabin Shreshta who set up the second goal in the 81st minute.
He overlapped down the wide left beating Nirmal and then kept a low cross which saw Jumanu evade Mondal to place an accurate angular left footer that went into the far corner of the net after beating Paul.
India, however, pulled one back at the stroke of final whistle when Jewel Raja Shiekh hoodwinked one of the Nepalese sidebacks with an outside dodge and essayed a centre which saw Nabi find the net with an airborne side volley.
India were, however, dealt a telling blow as skipper Chhetri, who is having a horrible tournament, will remain suspended for the semi-final after picking up his second yellow card on the day. Robin Singh is expected to start in place of Chhetri in the last four clash.
Image: India's Robin Singh and Syed Rahim Nabi challenge a Nepal defender as they threaten the rival goal during their SAFF Cup match at Kathmandu on Thursday