Unbeaten still but hugely disappointing so far, India face hosts Maldives in their last round-robin league match of the SAFF Championship in Male, Maldives on Wednesday, knowing well that nothing less than a win will save them from elimination.
A draw or a loss will send India out of the reckoning for the final of the regional tournament for the first time since 2003. That was the only occasion where India haven’t reached the final of the competition and have since made it to seven successive title clashes. Thus, a failure to do so with a full-strength team would raise questions about head coach Igor Stimac’s continuation at the helm of affairs, especially considering the coach has overseen just four wins in 20 matches in his role.
India started the tournament with a 1-1 draw against Bangladesh, followed it up with a 0-0 draw against Sri Lanka, before a late Sunil Chhetri goal helped India beat Nepal 1-0 to stay alive in the tournament.
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Win or bust for India
All the four top sides in the five-team tournament remain in contention for the October 16 final.
With five points from two draws and one win, India are currently in third place below Maldives (six points from three matches) and Nepal (six points from three matches). Nepal play Bangladesh (fourth place with four points) in an earlier match on Wednesday.
Thus India need to win the final match to be assured of a place in the final. Any other result would put an end to their campaign.
Sunil Chhetri vs Ali Ashfaq
Two-time and defending champions Maldives have never been easy opponents for India in the history of this regional tournament though the island country sits 51 ranking points below India in Fifa chart at 158th.
The side led by veteran Ali Ashfaq, one of the best strikers in the region, have regrouped themselves after losing their opening match against Nepal, beating Bangladesh 2-0 and Sri Lanka 1-0.
Just like India captain Sunil Chhetri, the 36-year-old Ashfaq has carried Maldives football on his shoulders for a long time and he has scored two of his side’s three goals in this tournament. He will, no doubt, be the man India will have to be wary about.
Stimac also hailed the Maldives frontman ahead of the game.
“We are going to witness tomorrow two great veterans on the pitch – Ali Ashfaq on one side, and Sunil Chhetri on the other. It’s a joy to watch them play, and if they were playing in the same team, it would have been a great combination for any coach,” Stimac said.
India felt the absence of experienced Sandesh Jhingan in defence as they could not defend a 1-0 lead against 10-man Bangladesh who scored a late equaliser despite numerical inferiority.
In the second match against 205th-ranked Sri Lanka, Indian forwards, including Chhetri, had an off day as they could not create enough chances and also failed to finish whatever few scoring opportunities they had for a 0-0 draw.
Chhetri came to the rescue of the team once again against Nepal, scoring the decisive goal to equal the legendary Pele in the previous match, but the question is how long the country will keep relying on a 37-year-old warhorse to find the opposition net.
“I am quite happy with the performances in our last three games – looking at the way we played, looking at the possession numbers. We dominated them and our goalkeeper wasn’t much disturbed. But there is an old problem which is following us and that’s converting chances. We cannot be dependent on just one player and need to be more confident in front of goal,” Stimac said.
Nippy winger Udanta Singh has been inconsistent though he has shown flashes of his abilities at the flanks while Seriton Fernandes in defence and Brandon Fernandes in the midfield have done reasonably well.
Understandably, Stimac has rued the inability of his forwards to convert the scoring chances.
“We need to improve our scoring from the chances which we are creating,” he said.
“It is simple, if we do that, games become very easy. Otherwise, you need to suffer till the end, or even beyond the end,” he added, still believing that his side can reach the final.
With the football-crazy Maldivians likely to play the role of 12th player on Wednesday, the onus is on Stimac and his men will have to up their game to ensure they reach their eighth successive final at the SAFF Championship.
The two teams last met in the final of the 2018 edition where Maldives emerged as the winners. However, India had sent its U-23 team to the competition that year.
It was only the fourth time that Maldives had beaten India in history. India though have beaten Maldives 14 times.
Maldives vs India Head-to-head
Even though Maldives are the home team, the pressure will certainly be on Stimac and India who need to force the issue on the evening just to avoid one of the biggest embarrassments in recent memory.
Maldives vs India will be shown Live on Eurosport HD and SD channels at 9:30 PM IST.
(With PTI inputs)