India wins inaugural AFC Challenge Cup 2008

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New Delhi, Aug 13 (UNI) Sunil Chhetri slammed a hat-trick as a resurgent India thrashed defending champions Tajikistan 4-1 in the final of the AFC Challenge Cup 2008 to qualify for the 2011 Asian Cup.

Playing in front of a near capacity home crowd, India dazzled in all departments of the game, displaying one their best performances in recent times. India, who last played at the Asia Cup in 1984, has regained their place among the elite of Asian footbal after a gap of 24 years.

Chettri opened the scoring for the hosts in the ninth minute under controversial circumstances. His diving header was initially ruled off-side by the assistant referree. But the official later changed his decision which sparked off a heated debate with the Tajik players, forcing the game to be held up for a couple of minutes.

Inspirational captain Baichung Bhutia doubled India's lead in the 19th minute when he curled in a left-footer from just outside the box after receiving a pass from Renedy Singh.

Chhetri's next goal was a beauty. The Delhi lad struck a powerful shot from 30 yards which beat the Tajik goalkeeper much to the amazement of the crowd.

The Indian defence was looking rock solid, denying their opponents a clear look at goal. The Tajiks were forced to take long rangers from outside the penalty box in their quest for a goal.

Tajikistan missed a golden opportunity in the 31st minute when an unmarked Yusuf Rabiev found himself at the end of a cross from the left only to head wide of the near post.

The Central Asians finally managed to reduce the margin when Fatkhullo Fatkhuloev punched in a long ranger in the 44th minute.

The Indians almost returned the favour in the very next minute when Baichung's pass found Mehrajuddin who unleashed a powerful shot which rattled the Tajik goalpost.

The Tajiks started the second half on an aggressive note, going all out in their search for goals. They created several good chances, but goalkeeper Subroto Paul produced several brilliant saves to deny them.

In the 52nd minute, Paul had to snatch the ball from the feet of striker Dzhomikhon Muhidinov and in the very next minute, following a defensive lapse, Muhidinov almost scored from his feeble shot that went past diving Paul but Anwar Ali was there to clear it out for the home team.

India's fourth and last goal was the result of a piece of individual brillinace from Sunil Chhetri. The Mohun Bagan striker ran down the left flank with the ball before passing to Baichung inside the box. The Sikkimese sniper realeased the ball for his strike partner who slotted home into an empty net to the wild celebrations of the home crowd.

Baichung, who had led his team from the front with three goals in the tournament, was voted as the most valuable player.

India also won the AFC fair play award while DPR Korea's Pak Song Chol won the highest scorer award for his six goals.

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