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Can Igor Stimac’s Blue Tigers live up to the favorites in the SAFF Championship?

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The South Asian Football Federation football championship has been the happy hunting ground for Indian football for the past three decades. India have won seven of the 12 editions of the SAFF Championship and still enter the tournament as the favorites.

The lack of competition in this tournament has often forced India to consider switching to another group like the Central Asian Football Association, but this did not quite materialize for various reasons.

India sent their U-23 team to this competition in 2018 and that was the initial plan for the 2021 edition until the Covid-19 pandemic forced the Indian Football Federation to change its plans. Lack of opportunities to play other matches for the Indian men’s soccer team during the pandemic has meant that India will send its full senior team to this tournament for the first time since 2015, the last time that India won this tournament.

India beat Afghanistan in the final of this edition. It was the third time in a row that the two teams had met in the event’s flagship game, making the title a direct battle between the two teams.

However, Afghanistan has left SAFF and is no longer competing, making India’s path to the title even easier.

The most successful teams in the SAFF championship

Nation Champions Finalists Third place Fourth place Semi-finalists
India 7 (1993, 1997, 1999 *, 2005, 2009, 2011 *, 2015 *) 4 (1995, 2008, 2013, 2018) 1 (2003)
Maldives 2 (2008 *, 2018) 3 (1997, 2003, 2009) 1 (1999) 4 (2005, 2011, 2013, 2015)
Bangladesh 1 (2003 *) 2 (1999, 2005) 1 (1995) 2 (1995, 2009 *)
Afghanistan 1 (2013) 2 (2011, 2015)
Sri Lanka 1 (1995 *) 1 (1993) 1 (1997) 3 (2008 *, 2009, 2015)
Nepal 1 (1993) 2 (1995, 1999) 3 (2011, 2013 *, 2018)
Pakistan 1 (1997) 2 (1993 *, 2003) 2 (2005 *, 2018)
Bhutan 1 (2008)

But the form and recent results against the other remaining SAFF nations – draws against Bangladesh and Nepal – have meant India cannot afford to take things too lightly in the Maldives, host of the competition.

Bangladesh and Nepal are expected to provide the toughest test for India in the tournament with the defending champions and the Maldives are also expected to be a tough opponent.

2021 SAFF Championship teams

Country Appearance Best Previous Performance Current FIFA Ranking
Bangladesh 12th Champion (2003) 189
India 13th Champions (1993, 1997, 1999, 2005, 2009, 2011, 2015) 107
Maldives 11th Champions (2008, 2018) 158
Nepal 13th Third place (1993) 168
Sri Lanka 13th Champion (1995) 205

Chhetri’s warning

Talismanic captain Sunil Chhetri warned his team that India would have to work very hard to make their superiority count against the rejuvenated SAFF nations.

“All the games will be difficult. Despite a bit of superiority we can have, every game will be like a war to be fought. We have to fight until the last minute. We can’t play 90%, ”Chhetri said at a virtual press conference.

The captain also admitted that his side had not performed at their best in the two international friendlies against Nepal in Kathmandu last month. They shot one and won the other.

“If we talk about the two matches against Nepal, we have areas for improvement and the head coach told us about that. We could have done better.

“Bangladesh have changed coaches (after the World Cup qualifiers) but they are a very difficult team. In the two matches that we have played against Bangladesh in the last three or four months, it has been very difficult. All the teams in the region have improved.

“So we want to play one game at a time. We are only thinking of the Bangladesh game at the moment, we are not thinking of the final, ”said Chhetri.

Unpreparedness

India arrived in Malé without a pre-camp because the tournament was coming out of Fifa’s window and it was not possible to have the available players from their respective clubs who started to prepare for the next season of the Indian Super League.

But the SAFF Championships, which end on October 16, will be the last opportunity for players to play in international matches before the third round of the 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers begins in February next year. .

It is crucial for India to qualify for the now-over AFC Asian Cup, a tournament it successfully qualified for in 2019.

“We couldn’t have a suitable camp due to the circumstances. AFC and SAFF were forced to hold tournaments outside the FIFA window (due to the pandemic) and we had to come to an agreement with ISL clubs to release players outside the FIFA window. FIFA window because they also want to do well.

“We said our national team would drop out of November and ISL clubs would release players in September and October. We thank the ISL clubs (for releasing the players for the SAFF championships). “

Stimac preferred Bengaluru FC and ATK players Mohun Bagan who competed in the AFC Cup and felt it would be advantageous to have these players as the tournament was being held in the Maldives.

“After playing in the AFC Cup, the BFC and ATK MB players also had their pre-season, so it’s an advantage as most of the other ISL teams don’t have a pre-season yet. -season. So we have to decide how many minutes we have to give the players during the 90 minutes, ”he said.

Expectations

Training conditions in the Maldives have not been the best so far and coach Stimac and captain Chhetri mentioned this during the press conference leading up to their tournament opener against Bangladesh on Monday.

However, India’s expectations despite the difficulties will be to win the trophy and perform encouragingly to give the squad the necessary confidence ahead of the Asian Cup qualifiers.

“We’re in a favorite position to win the tournament and we’re going to justify ourselves,” said Stimac. “The key is that we have to organize ourselves in a disciplined manner and come back quickly after losing the ball.”

Captain Chhetri also echoed similar thoughts.

“When you play for your country you want to win,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether we’re favorites or underdogs or whether it’s the SAFF Championship or the World Cup qualifiers. We’re motivated to go out there and win and that’s what we’ll do here.

India would be expected to win over these challenges and also score a few goals, an area where the team have struggled in recent times. The Blue Tigers are under pressure to live up to the championship title, but how they overcome this challenge will determine their level of preparation ahead of the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.

(With PTI inputs)



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