Kolkata: Talismanic Sunil Chhetri was once again the man of the moment as he struck a brace to inspire India to a 2-0 win over Cambodia in their opening match of the Asian Cup qualifying final round match at the Salt Lake Stadium here on Wednesday.
The Igor Stimac’s side were far from their best and failed to make use of their better possession against a weak side but the 37-year-old returned Chhetri from an injury layoff to score on either side of the break (13th and 59th minute).
The double strike brought him back to the third place in the list of highest scorers among active footballers in the world. With 82 goals from 127 matches, Chhetri now sits behin Portugal superstar Cristiano Ronaldo (117) and Argentine virtuoso Lionel Messi (86).
Following a tense start that saw their star centre-back Sandesh Jhingan earn a third minute yellow card for arguing with the referee, Chhetri settled the nerves converting a 14th minute penalty in a calm-headed way.
It was Liston Colaco who was tripped inside the box by Kok Boris of Cambodia. Chhetri took the centre stage and slammed past a diving Hul Kimhuy with his powerful strike.
But thereafter, it was a tale of missed chances for the Blue Tigers who failed to justify their 69 per cent possession to go into the break with a slender lead.
Chhetri missed a couple of headers and even was booked in the 30th minute for a rough tackle on Choun Chanchav as it was not the kind of start the Blue Tigers wanted against the lowly Angkor Warriors.
A couple of changes at the break — Sahal Abdul Samad and Udanta Singh coming in for Manvir Singh and Anirudh Thapa — made the Blue Tigers more fluidity in their attack.
Finally, it was from a superb assist by Brandon Fernandes that Chhetri completed his brace to give India a 2-0 cushion at the hour mark.
The Goan announced his return to the starting XI with a measured cross and Chhetri rose just enough to connect the free header and brought up his 82nd international goal.
The Indian captain was taken off by Stimac in the 68th minute with Ashique Kuruniyan replacing him.
For Stimac, this was his first win on home soil since his appointment as the head-coach of the Blue Tigers.
Stimac has lost thrice and drawn twice at home, conceding 13 goals earlier.
National anthem glitch mars kickoff
The start of the match was marred by a technical glitch as the Cambodian team had to wait for about 10 minutes for their national anthem to be played much to the embarrassment of the All India Football Federation.
The announcement was made for the visiting team’s national anthem but what was played out was the Indian national anthem and the Cambodians stood waiting.
Winning start for Hong Kong
Hong Kong rode on two first-half goals by Wong Wai (23rd) and Matt Orr (27th) to down Afghanistan 2-1 for a winning start to their campaign earlier in the day.