India goalkeeper Subrata Paul was the hero as the host nation held their nerve to retain the Nehru Cup winning 5-4 on penalties against Syria at New Delhi's Ambedkar Stadium on Monday.
Despite losing to Lebanon by a solitary goal in the opener, India bounced back to reach the final of the five-nation tournament with wins over Kyrgyzstan and Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, it was Syria that went into the tournament decider with an unblemished record that including a solitary-goal victory over the hosts two days prior.
Second-time around proved a different story altogether. Following a goalless 90 minutes, the hosts went ahead eight minutes into the second period of extra time, with Renedy Singh curling in a well-taken free-kick. Despite the agony of conceding so late, the Syrians showed impressive resolve to equalise as Ali Diab headed home a minute from time to force the penalty shoot-out.
Having excelled throughout the campaign, India's young custodian Paul went on to produce some of the tournaments finest saves when his country needed him most. Although Renedy missed the target and Mehrajuddin Wadoo's shot was saved, the 22-year-old bravely denied Wael Ayan and Ahmad Haj Mohamad, and after Irungbam Surkumar put India ahead, Paul kept his cool to save from Hamzeh Al Attounim to seal India's dramatic triumph.
Houghton hails progress
Paul's sublime display didn't go unappreciated by India coach Bob Houghton, who was quick to acknowledge the talent displayed by his goalkeeper. "Again Subrata was brilliant for us and he had an outstanding tournament," said the former China and Uzbekistan boss who assumed the reigns of the world's second most populace nation in 2006.
Under the Englishman, India made history two years ago when they ran out 1-0 winners over Syria to lift the Nehru Cup trophy as hosts for the first time since the tournament's inception in 1982. Boosted by the ground-breaking success, India went on to claim arguably their greatest success to date by winning last year's AFC Challenge Cup, thus booking their place in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar.
"The team has played together for the last three years and they are a matured group now," Houghton stated after the Nehru Cup final. "They play for each other and give everything for the team. Even after conceding the late equaliser and missing two spot kicks, the team came back."
Winning a hat-trick of titles in his three years in charge has provided Houghton and his charges with a timely boost in the build-up to India's first appearance in the AFC Asian Cup since 1984. "We still have our work cut out if we are to do well in the Asian Cup. We will plan to play some good matches to keep the team in good shape."
Like India, Syria also showed impressive form throughout the tournament and despite the second near-miss against the hosts, they showed they are truly a side to be reckoned with.
Under the guidance of Fajer Ebrahim, Syria began brightly with a 2-0 win against Kyrgyzstan. They went on to defeat Sri Lanka 4-0, edging Lebanon 1-0 to book their place in the final, before beating the hosts in the final group match, albeit with the result academic.
"We were unlucky to lose the game as we had created so many chances," said Ebrahim, whose side is seeking to qualify for Qatar 2011 from a group which also features Lebanon, China and Vietnam. "I hope the experiences gained and lessons learned from this campaign will benefit us in the forthcoming Asian Cup qualifiers."