It has been a long month for the Indian men’s national football team. They’ve played eight matches so far, and have one more left to go. Since June 9, the team, led by skipper Sunil Chhetri, has already won one title, beating Lebanon in the final of the Intercontinental Cup. On Tuesday, at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru, they look to win a second title when they face Kuwait in 2023 SAFF Championship final.

These two tournaments, while not high up in prestige or calibre, are proving important to test the mettle and dynamics of the Indian team as they steadily prepare for the upcoming challenges in the build up to the AFC Asian Cup next January.

During the press conference ahead of the Intercontinental Cup in Bhubaneshwar, Chhetri and head coach Igor Stimac were of the same opinion – a predicted nine games within the space of 30 days was a very good thing for a team that had only played eight matches in the previous 12 months.

From a national camp in Bhubaneshwar to the Intercontinental Cup in the same city and now the SAFF Championship in Bengaluru, the team has been in sync throughout this last month. For Sandesh Jhingan, one of the senior players in the team, he attributed this cohesiveness to the longer training camp period and trusting in the system built by coach Stimac and assistant coach Mahesh Gawli.

Recap: India held by Kuwait in feisty clash as Igor Stimac is sent off, again

“The main thing is how the team does,” Jhingan said during the pre-match press conference ahead of the final. “It’s all about the team philosophy and the team unity and how we have trained. So that has been excellent in the past six weeks.”

Jhingan had to sit out the semi-final against Lebanon because of his suspension for picking up two during the group stage, but was confident that his teammates would reach the final.

“I was preparing for the final and well done to the whole team, how they performed,” he said. “We deserve to win and now the whole focus is against Kuwait.”

Jhingan’s thoughts align with both Chhetri and Gawli, the latter having highlighted the team chemistry and spirit felt among the players both during the camp and as the two tournaments progressed.

Speaking ahead of the semi-final against Lebanon, Chhetri had said, “Winning games always helps. But now that we are here for one and a half months, the camaraderie, the combination, the weather is at the peak, which is very good. So, no one is complaining. And now that we have done all the hard work and reached this place, we do not want to let it go.”

For Gawli, it will be his third game in charge of the national team during this tournament, with Stimac serving the second of his two-match suspension due to the red card he earned in the match against Kuwait. Although a man of few words, it is quite clear that the level of trust that Stimac has in his deputy has paid off, considering Gawli’s leadership carried them to the SAFF Championship final.

In the last Group A game, India was held to a 1-1 draw vs Kuwait -- the only time in the last eight games that India have conceded (Courtesy: AIFF)

Defence and fitness

Since the beginning of the Intercontinental Cup, India’s backline and goalkeepers have had seven clean sheets in eight games, the only blemish being an Anwar Ali own goal against Kuwait.

According to Jhingan, who is an integral factor in the achievement of this statistic, Gawli himself along with the other coaches deserve the credit for this run of defensive brilliance.

“There is a very fine quote made by a great Italian defender, Giorgio Chiellini: ‘The script is the same, just the actors change,’” Jhingan said. “The system is what brings the best out of any player.”

He pointed out that Gawli, a former defender for India himself, was extremely detailed when it came to setting up drills for the defence during the training camp and for every pre-match session through this past month.

“Mahesh Bhai has been one of the best defenders India has had in its playing days,” said Jhingan. “We all looked up to him. And now when we had our long camp with him, everyone is saying ‘oh, there’s a lot of clean sheets, the team is doing well,’ a lot of credit should go to Mahesh Bhai. Honestly, the sessions he takes with us, those small inputs, which foot to go forward, which foot to go back, how it’s about the team, how everyone does together.”

Indian defence shines: Gurpreet Sandhu stands tall as India beat Lebanon on penalties to reach cup final

What Kuwait will be looking at is a repeat of how they have been the only team in the last two tournaments that have managed to breach the Indian defence.

As someone who started the group game against Kuwait, Jhingan was respectful of the other finalists and touted them as “one of the toughest teams” India has played in the last six months.

Another factor that will come into play is that Kuwait will be playing only their second evening game in the tournament – the other being the last match of the group stage against the hosts. Coupled with the fact that both teams played into extra time in their semi-finals, there were concerns about fitness and recovery for the final on Tuesday.

When asked about these concerns at the pre-final press conference on Monday, Kuwait goalkeeper Bader Bin Saanoun pointed out that the team’s coaches and backroom staff were adequately prepared to handle the demands of an international tournament in weather conditions like India.

Kuwait coach Rui Bento added that things were slightly tougher because it was the end of a long season for the players. He conceded that the case would be very similar for India and hoped for a quality game of football at the end of it.

“I think it’s very important (that) tomorrow the players enjoy the game,” Bento said. “Everybody enjoys the game because it’s important to win. But my players know and I talk about this all the time. Sometimes my team wins and I don’t like the game. And I speak about this with the players. Sometimes we draw and I think the performance is good. Sometimes we lose and we make good games.”

When asked about what his strategy would be for the final, Bento was crisp in his response, saying: “Tomorrow, our message is easy. The players need to enjoy the game because we worked a lot to get to the final.”

For Gawli and his charges, there will be added pressure in front of a supercharged home crowd in Bengaluru.

But the former defender-turned-coach, who has won the SAFF Championship twice as a player, in 2005 and 2011, has cautioned his players to remain calm and cool. And bask in the positive environment that could see India win their ninth SAFF Championship and third title at home in 2023.

India will face Kuwait in the 2023 SAFF Championship final at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru on July 4 at 7:30pm IST.