Talismanic captain Sunil Chhetri struck twice to lead a beleaguered India to a 3-1 win over hosts Maldives in their final league match and enter the final of the SAFF Championships here on Wednesday.
Chhetri scored in the 62nd and 71st minutes after Manvir Singh had given India the lead in the 33rd minute in the must-win match for India. Ali Ashfaq pulled one back for Maldives in the 45th minute from a spot kick.
The 37-year-old Chhetri, who was playing in his 124th match, is just one goal shy of Argentine maestro Lionel Messi (80), who is the second highest international goal scorer among active players behind Portugal superstar Cristiano Ronaldo (115).
Seven-time champions India, who finished on top of the five-team table with eight points, face Nepal in the final on October 16.
Nepal drew 1-1 with Bangladesh in the earlier match of the day to finish second in the round-robin league with seven points.
India had beaten Nepal 1-0 in a league stage.
With the win over Maldives, India saved themselves from crashing out of reckoning for the final of the regional tournament, which would have been the country’s worst result in recent memory.
This will be 12th final appearance for India.
India dominated the match throughout and Chhetri almost gave India the lead in the 27th minute but his header off a Brandon Fernandes corner hit the crossbar.
Ashfaq had a dangerous shot at the Indian goal in the 28th minute but it was blocked by a defender.
Five minutes later, Manvir fired it past Maldives goalkeeper at the near post to give India the lead.
Just second before half time, Ashfaq scored from a penalty to put Maldives back on level terms.
India head coach Igor Stimac brought in nippy winger Udanta Singh in the 51st minute in place of Brandon Fernandes.
Soon after, in the 62nd minute, India took the lead. An Apuia cross was chested down by Manvir for Chhetri to blast into the back of the Maldives net.
The Indian captain scored his second goal of the day with a looping header that crashed into the opposition net in the 71st minute.