Nepal suffer 1-0 loss to IndiaSunil Chhetri’s late winner saves the South Asian giants from the brink of elimination.
Nepal succumbed to a 1-0 defeat against India in their SAFF Championship group stage match in Male, the Maldives on Sunday.
Nepal needed a win to secure a berth to their first ever final of the biennial sub-continental competition but a late goal from India's talismanic captain Sunil Chhetri denied Abdullah Al Mutairi's men early celebrations.
The Kuwaiti coach, whose side had enjoyed victories over hosts Maldives and Sri Lanka in their prior group games, opted for a five-man defensive line-up against the South Asian giants.
India kept the ball in possession at both ends but lacked creativity as Nepali defence stood firm until the 82nd minute.
Chhetri squandered a huge opportunity in the 34th minute when he failed to tap into an empty net from a cross from Suresh Singh Wangjam.
But the under pressure captain gave India what they needed most eight minutes before the final whistle, bending a flick header from substitute Farukh Haji Kasam Chaudhary from just outside the six yard box to equal Brazil great Pele's record of 77 international goals.
Chhetri, who was playing his 123rd match for India, is now the third-highest international goalscorer among active footballers, sharing the record with Ali Mabkhout (77) of the United Arab Emirates, behind Argentina's Lionel Messi (80) and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo (112).
Igor Stimac's men could have taken the lead in the 57th minute but Nepal captain and goalkeeper Kiran Kumar Limbu made an outstanding save to keep out a header from Yasir Mohammad.
Nepal switched to attacking in search of an equaliser in the final moments but India preserved their lead to save them from the verge of early elimination.
"I want to tell all the Nepali football supporters not to blame the players for the loss," said Nepal coach Al Mutairi. "I take the responsibility. You can criticise me if you want but not the players. I don’t want to add pressure on my players."
The defeat means Nepal drop to second in the five-team standings below the Maldives on goal difference after the host nation overcame out-of-contention Sri Lanka 1-0 in the early match courtesy of a six-minute goal from Ali Ashfaq.
Both Nepal and the Maldives have six points.
Meanwhile, India, who had played a 1-1 draw against Bangladesh and a goalless stalemate against Sri Lanka in their previous games, climbed to the third spot. The seven-time champions take on the host nation in their final round-robin league match on Wednesday and can still make it to the October 16 final with a victory.
Nepal are still in pole position to reach the final. They meet Bangladesh in their deciding league match on the same day. Both the Maldives and Nepal can reach the final with at least a draw.
But, a painful SAFF history can give Nepal a headache on Wednesday.
It is not the first time Nepal have edged closer to reaching the final of SAFF Championship. Nepal lost to Afghanistan 1-0 in the 2011 SAFF semi-final after conceding an extra-time goal in New Delhi. Nepal bowed out of the tournament from the semis again in 2013 after losing to the Afghanis 1-0 at home ground. In the 2019 SAFF in Bangladesh, Nepal lost to the Maldives 3-0 in the last four.
But despite past disappointments, the tide could be in Nepal's favour this time. Bangladesh have suffered painful losses against Nepal in the SAFF games. They have failed to defeat Nepal in the competition since a 2-0 victory in the 2005 SAFF group stage.
Since then, they have met three times in the championship, with Nepal winning in 2011, 2013 and 2018—all in the group stages. Nepal also defeated Bangladesh in the Three Nations Cup final in March this year.