India advanced to the qualifiers of the 2018 Fifa World Cup and the 2019 Asian Cup with a goalless draw against Nepal in the second leg of the pre-qualifiers in Kathmandu on Tuesday. India had won the first leg in Guwahati 2-0 on March 12.
Although India’s performance left a lot to be desired, the match had its thrilling moments as a disallowed goal for the visitors and an off-the-post strike from Nepal kept the spectators on the edge of their seats at the Dashrath Rangasala Stadium.
The first few chances fell for India but striker Sunil Chhetri’s long ranger was off target and then Robin Singh’s shot fizzed over the bar five minutes into the game.
Playing on their home turf, Nepal then pushed on the offensive. Forward Shantosh Sahukala created a chance in the 18th minute as he headed the ball inside the box. But the ball was collected by India custodian Subrata Paul before it could find its way to a red Nepali shirt.
Bikram Lama and Shahukhala stitched together some superb balls for striker Bimal Gharti Magar but the Indian rear-guard stood strong as defender Arnab Mondal lunged in for a few strong challenges.
India coach Stephen Constantine fielded the same 11 as in the first leg but the tourists time and again held on to the ball for too long, allowing the opponents to regroup.
Magar came close to a breakthrough a minute before half-time but could not beat Paul from close range.
After the change of ends, both sides stepped on the gas as India started planting in crosses from the flanks and into the opponent’s defensive third while Shahukhala continued to torment the visiting defenders.
In the 64th minute, Robin put the ball into the net but the referee disallowed the goal, leaving India dumbstruck. Chhetri next tried a right-footer after dribbling past a maze of defenders but his shot was wide off-target.
At the other end of the pitch, Paul was left stranded as Sandip Rai chipped his free-kick over the wall to Bharat Khawas who only managed to find the post, much to the Indians’ relief.
Eight minutes from time, Paul had to pull off a brilliant save to thwart Rai’s attempt, thus ensuring a passage to the Asian and World Cup qualifiers.