SAFF Championship: India look to ward off Nepal threat and move closer to semifinals

Bengaluru: A 4-0 hammering of Pakistan giving them the perfect start, India will have a wonderful opportunity to move closer to the semifinals of the SAFF Championship when they face Nepal here on Saturday.

On paper, the hosts hold all the aces, evidenced by an overwhelming 16-2 overall head-to-head record in 23 matches played between them, a sequence that started in the 1985 SAF Games.

The last meeting between the two sides came during the 2021 SAFF Championship when India defeated Nepal 3-0.

As far as the SAFF tournament is concerned, India also have a commanding 6-2 head-to-head record from nine matches. Even the recent form of both the teams indicate an Indian domination.

India entered the SAFF Championship on the back of their 2-0 triumph over Lebanon in the Intercontinental Cup final in Odisha.

The Blue Tigers carried that confidence into their opening match here at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, turning on the afterburners to hammer Pakistan 4-0 and the victory was laced by captain Sunil Chhetri’s hat-trick.

Chhetri’s effort might have come as a relief for India as they are missing the services of injured Ishan Pandita upfront.

India will be without the services of head coach Igor Stimac after he was shown red card during India’s 4-0 win over Pakistan in the ill-tempered opening match. Assistant coach Mahesh Gawli will take charge of the team at the dug out.

Nepal went down 1-3 to Kuwait in their opening match and a positive result against India, however tough that might be, is mandatory for them to stay alive in the SAFF tournament.

However, India will have to guard against complacency as Nepal have the wherewithal to spring a surprise. Nepal’s 31-year-old midfielder Rohit Chand, who plays in Indonesian League, and forward Anjan Bista could be surprise packages.

Additionally, Nepal coach Vincenzo Alberto Annese is quite familiar with Indian football as he has served as manager of I-League winning side Gokulam Kerala FC.

The Indian camp is very much aware of Nepal’s potency and assistant coach Mahesh Gawli warned his side against letting their guard down against the Gorkhalis.

“They (Nepal) are a good side and they played a very good game against Kuwait as you all saw. It will be a very tough match for us,” Gawli had said after the match against Pakistan.

But, India have made some strides under head coach Igor Stimac. Defence has been India’s Achilles’ Heel in the past but they have now managed to keep a clean sheet in the last seven matches, a record for Stimac’s side. Experienced Sandesh Jhingan too seemed to have come into his elements.

Gawli wanted the team to build on it, and expressed satisfaction over the visible improvement. He attributed it to the cohesiveness of the unit.

“I think it is because of how we practise in training. We like to keep things simple and they are doing it. And they’ve been playing together for so long and it has helped them to improve,” he said.

Now, it’s time for India to add another brick in that process.

Saturday’s matches: Pakistan vs Kuwait 3.30 PM IST; India vs Nepal 7.30 PM IST.