Kolkata: The news that India have already qualified for back-to-back Asian Cup finals even before the last match may have added an extra edge to their performance as the ‘Blue Tigers’ swept aside Hong Kong 4-0 to go through as group toppers late on Tuesday evening.
Igor Stimac’s boys hence ended their group engagements on a winning note while Sunil Chhetri, their talismanic captain, reached another personal landmark with his 84th international goal - the same as Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas. Chhetri, who finished their campaign with four goals, slotted the second goal for his team after Anwar Ali opened the scoring in the second minute.
India netted two more in the final minutes to stamp their authority on Hong Kong. Manvir Singh netted the third goal in the 85th minute while Ishan Pandita add one more to it in injury-time.
India have now qualified for back-to-back editions of the continental showpiece for the first time in their history. The line-up was sorted once Palestine thrashed the Philippines 4-0 in Ulaanbaatar on Tuesday to book their spot at the finals, a result which also sealed qualification for six other sides at the continental championship. ‘‘Here we come,’’ the All India Football Federation tweeted from @IndianFootball.
The 24 teams in the qualification third round were divided into six groups of four each. The matches of each group were played across different venues with India hosting the group D games. All the group winners and the five best second-place finishers across the six groups will qualify for the Asian Cup. India beat Cambodia 2-0 in the opening match and earned a hard-fought 2-1 over Afghanistan in their second outing.
The new host country for AFC Asian Cup 2023 is yet to be finalised after China gave up their hosting rights due to the COVID-19 situation in the country. The quadrennial event is scheduled to be held from June 16-July 16, next year.