Boosted by an undefeated run, seven-time champions India will start as favourites against Maldives in the summit clash of the South Asian Football Federation Cup in Dhaka on Saturday.
The Indian team, comprising under-23 players except for one, has been the only unbeaten side in the tournament. India beat Sri Lanka and Maldives 2-0 in the group stages before prevailing over Pakistan 3-1 in the semi-finals.
The defending champions will be chasing their eighth title – and third back-to-back – in 12 editions as they seek to continue their stranglehold in the regional tournament.
Maldives have not played in the final in the last three editions, losing in the semi-finals each time. India, on the other hand, have played in the final of all the earlier 11 editions except in 2003.
The last time the Bangabandhu Stadium in Dhaka hosted the tournament in 2009, India and Maldives faced each other in the summit clash and both sides could not score a goal even in the extra time. India won that final after a penalty shootout.
Stephen Constantine would not want Saturday’s match to meander towards a penalty shootout but his players cannot take Maldives lightly even though the island country has been struggling in the group stages.
“Maldives have shown their worth in the semifinal against Nepal,” the India head coach said ahead of the final. “A 3-0 win against Nepal was not an easy task. Even though we have won against them in the group stage, we cannot afford to disrespect them. We have to keep in mind that three of their main players did not play against us.”
He added, “Maldives have our full respect and we are expecting a tough game tomorrow. But we also deserve to be in the final. We fear none and as I said before, we have come with a strong intent to win the tournament.”
Constantine said his players have the added incentive of doing well on Saturday as they can earn a place in the Asian Cup squad. “These boys have a carrot in front of them which is a berth in the Asian Cup squad. They are well aware of the fact that they need to perform constantly to earn the same.”
Manvir Singh, who scored a brace against Pakistan in the semi-final to win his successive Most Valuable Player (MVP) award of the tournament, said the focus is to continue the good work.
“It was a group of tough guys and the job was never going to be an easy one. But we had the self-belief to churn out the positive results and eventually, we did,” he said.
“Now, our focus is on the final. We are working as a unit and we just need to keep our heads down and continue the work,” the 23-year-old striker, who is leading the goal-scorers’ chart with three goals, added.
Maldives head coach Petar Segrt said his team has a chance to win the title.
“I’m very proud of all our players and the staff. This is a huge success for us to be in the final of this competition. We respect India, they’re a big opponent. But this is our chance which we want to take.”
Maldives captain Akram Abdul said, “We have struggled in the group stages but we are in the final now. This is our biggest chance. We have not played the final in nine years. We are well prepared and we are going to fight to win the tournament.