New Delhi: Maldives signaled their title aspirations, knocking out strong contenders Syria from the ongoing edition of the Nehru Cup football tournament with a 2-1 victory on Monday.

Talismanic skipper Ashfaq Ali led by example, scoring in the 59th minute, to keep Maldives in with a realistic chance of making to the final. And then, Ahmed Rashid found the net in the injury time (90+3).

In between the two Maldives goals, Alaa Alshbbli scored for Syria in the 81st minute. Maldives have six points from three games, while Syria have earned just one for as many matches.

Syria needed a win to stay in the hunt but their spirited showing was not enough to see them through at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium.

Syria's campaign, it seemed, was as good as over when Ali headed in an Umair Mohamed free-kick from 35 yards. Alshbbli brought them back for a while, but they could not find another. Rashid's strike only added to their misery. The match had started an hour and a half late after torrential rains left the turf wet.

Runners-up in the last two editions, in 2007 and 2009, Syria showed intent but lacked firepower upfront. Maldives, on the other hand, managed to stay afloat in the tournament, thanks to Ali and Rashid's strikes.

It was always going to be a difficult task for both teams after rain had left the ground wet. They looked desperate to break the deadlock and despite being locked 0-0 at the break, both teams had their chances, which were spurned.

It needed an Ashfaq special to draw the first blood. Alaa Alshbbli then gave Syria a glimmer of hope when his acrobatic overhead kick off Hani Altayar's pass found the target on the 81st minute. There were, though, some doubts over whether a defender was offside.

Alshbbli has had a hand in each of the four goals scored by Syria in this tournament. He had scored thrice, apart from assisting once. His efforts were not enough in the end though.

Syria had lost to hosts India in the tournament opener and drew with Cameroon. Maldives lost to India but defeated Nepal before Monday's encounter.

Maldives coach Urbanyi was not happy with the overall referring.

"How can a fourth official send me when it has to be done by the referee," he told reporters after the match.

About Alshbbli's goal, Urbanyi said: "The player was offside by 4-5 inches."

Syria assistant coach Anas Makhlouf said: "His team struggled with the conditions throughout the tournament."

(Agencies)

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