Sunil Chhetri hat-trick, India on Wednesday thrashed defending champions Tajikistan 4-1 in the final of AFC Challenge Cup football tournament and qualified for the Asian Cup after a hiatus of 24 years.
Playing one of their best matches in the recent times, India outplayed its Central Asian rival in all departments of the game in the thrilling summit clash of the eight-nation Asia's second tier competition whose winners get a direct entry to the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Doha. Chhetri, who had said before the match that the summit clash would be the most important 90 minutes of his career, stole the show on Wednesday by scoring in the ninth, 19th and 75th minutes, and giving opposition defence a torrid time with numerous solo runs.
Inspirational India captain Baichung Bhutia added another goal for the hosts in the 23rd minute under floodlights at the Ambedkar Stadium to give India their third entry in the continental elite stage. India last played in the Asian Cup in 1984 under Yugoslav coach Ciric Milovan with players of calibre like Shabbir Ali, Subrata Bhattacharya, Krishanu Dey and Prasanta Banerjee in the team.
Before that they were runners up in 1964 in Israel where the hosts defeated India in the final. However, India on Wednesday perhaps found inspiration from the Nehru Cup victory last August at the same ground. They must also be thanking the weather Gods as incessant rains in Hyderabad had forced the AFC to shift the match from there to Ambedkar Stadium which again looked festive with spectators almost filling up the 20000 capacity stadium.