Nepal storm into final with a 1-0 win over BangladeshDefending champions, who are unbeaten in the competition, now play Bhutan for gold on Tuesday.
Defending champions Nepal went a step closer to retaining the South Asian Games football title after overcoming the challenge of Bangladesh 1-0 in their last league match at the Dashrath Stadium on Sunday.
The hosts, who came into the match on seven points, needed at least a point to book their place in the final but a decisive first-half strike from Sunil Bal gave them all three points. They will take on Bhutan in the final on Tuesday. The match kicks off at 3pm.
With the victory, Nepal also avenged a 1-0 loss at home to Bangladesh in the final of the 1999 sporting extravaganza, then called South Asian Federation Games. Nepal had also suffered a 2-1 defeat to Bangladesh in the group stage at the 12th edition of the Games in Guwahati, India in 2016. But Nepal progressed to the final where they stunned hosts India 2-1 to win the gold.
Nepal found themselves ahead in the 11th minute as Sunil Bal tapped home from inside the area after quick exchanges between Rejin Subba and captain Sujal Shrestha. Anisur Rahman made a valiant effort, but the Nepal winger’s shot crossed the goal line after brushing the diving ’keeper’s fingertips to trigger celebrations in the stands.
Captain Shrestha, who is the tournament’s leading scorer with three goals, had a chance in the 26th minute to double Nepal's lead. But his weak shot was comfortably saved by Rahman. Bangladesh showed urgency towards the close of the opening half and won a couple of corners, but failed to make anything out of them.
After the change of ends, Bangladesh tried to come back into the match keeping the Nepal backline on their toes. Bangladesh coach Jamie Day introduced Mohammad Ibrahim in the 61st minute to add more teeth to their attack. Ibrahim made an instant impact, going to close to scoring twice in two minutes.
Weathering constant barrage of the Bangladeshi attack, Nepal continued to push ahead on breaks. In the 64th minute, Shrestha had another opportunity to extend the team’s lead but his headed attempt narrowly missed the target.
In their desperate search for an equaliser, the Bangladeshi’s resorted to rough tackles and the Nepali captain had to be stretchered off the field in the 75th minute. He returned to the field but was replaced with debutant Sesehang Angdembe three minutes later.
Maharjan then brought on Rajesh Pariyar to replace Rejin Subba in the 88th minute.
The match, however, ended on a sour note as Bangladesh were reduced to 10 men as captain Jamal Bhuyan received his marching orders just before the final whistle. In the 95th minute, Nepal were awarded a freekick for a foul on the right corner, causing a brief melee between rival players. Amid the heated exchanges, Bhuyan, who had been booked a minute earlier in the match, pushed the referee and was shown a second yellow and sent off for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Nepal head coach Bal Gopal Maharjan who opted for Tshiring Gurung in place of Bikash Khawas who missed the match due to two yellows in previous matches, said, “It was a very tough match for us. We have been playing without adequate breaks in this tournament. It’s ill effect was evident today as our boys were drained after the hour mark.”
“Despite the injuries and lack of enough recovery time, they played well and we won. I’m glad to carry our unbeaten run into the final,” said Maharjan. “We want to beat Bhutan again in the tournament and secure the gold in front of the home crowd.”
Speaking about the injury status of captain Shrestha, Maharjan said, “As we have played four matches in the span of a week. Everyone is feeling the heat. We have yet to assess Sujal’s injury. As we have a break before the final, I am hopeful he will recover from the knock to lead the side in the final.”
At the post-match press conference on Saturday, ANFA officials and Maharjan had said that Abhisek Rijal would miss Sunday's match because of the two yellow cards in the tournament so far. However, it was Rijal's only yellow in the tournament that he collected for taking off his shirt while celebrating a goal against the Maldives on Saturday.
Despite the loss, Bangladesh coach Day praised his players for a spirited performance.
“The better team tonight lost the match. I thought we played really well, created several chances but just could not convert them,” the British coach said.
“We’ve got a bronze, I’m pleased with a medal, but we would have liked to done better [with a gold],” he said while adding, “Our players are very tired, they need to be looked after.”
Day, however, was discontent with some of the referee’s decisions. “There were several poor decisions. Personally, I don’t think the referee meets the international standards this tournament demands.”
On the gold medal clash between Nepal and Bhutan, Day said, “Bhutan have had a wonderful tournament, but I think Nepal are slightly better. With the home crowd behind them, Nepal would try and exploit the advantage they have.” Nepal had humbled Bhutan 4-0 in the league.