SAFF Championship: India start firm favourite to land title

Bengaluru: Buoyed by the recent triumph in the Intercontinental Cup, the Indian football team will enter the SAFF Championship 2023 as a confident unit and look to extend its dominance in the tournament.

India will face Pakistan in their opening outing at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium on Wednesday, and the match is all set to be played as per schedule after the latter received their India visa on Monday night.

Placed low in the pecking order, Pakistan might not offer India a massive challenge but the Blue Tigers will be eager to start their campaign on a rousing note, and give other aspirants a strong message.

Eight-time champions India are drawn into Group A alongside Nepal, Kuwait and Pakistan. The other competing teams are Lebanon, Maldives, Bhutan and Bangladesh who have been drafted into Group B.

The Intercontinental Cup victory will add to their desire to land another trophy to the cabinet. India had warded off strong opponent Lebanon 2-0 on Sunday at the Kalinga Stadium to win the event.

It was India’s first victory over Lebanon in 46 years and that skipper and No. 1 striker Sunil Chhetri managed to etch his name on the score sheet would boost Indians’ morale.

The Indian team would hope for Chhetri to continue in the same vein in the SAFF Championship as well. If one needs a bit of personal motivation, Chhetri can look to surpass Mokhtar Dahari of Malaysia, who has 89 goals against his name, as the second highest-scoring Asian footballer.

Chhetri has 87 goals for India from 137 matches and three more goals in the SAFF tourney will propel him to a rare milestone.

Beyond those personal milestones, India will also have a proud team record to preserve. They are the defending champions, having won the tournament in 2021 but that is just one glittering leaf in a total of 8 SAFF title wins.

So, India will be eager to add a 9th title to their kitty in Bengaluru. India have won the tournament in 1993, 1997, 1999, 2005, 2009, 2011, 2015 and 2021. The only teams who have managed to snatch the glory away from India are Maldives (2008, 2018) and Bangladesh (2003).

A victory in the SAFF tournament will also help India gain some valuable FIFA Ranking points and go up in the ladder.

Preparing for the AFC Asian Cup, India coach Igor Stimac was aware of the road ahead for the team.

“I know we can do better. As a coach, I cannot show satisfaction. I am happy now but we are not going to stop working, will look to do better and push for more,” Stimac had said after the Intercontinental Cup win.

It will not sound very pleasing for India’s opponents in the SAFF Championship as they know that a sharp home side is a steep mountain to climb.

India squad: Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh, Phurba Lachenpa Tempa.

Defenders: Subhasish Bose, Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan, Anwar Ali, Akash Mishra, Mehtab Singh and Rahul Bheke.

Midfielders: Liston Colaco, Ashique Kuruniyan, Suresh Singh Wangjam, Rohit Kumar, Udanta Singh, Anirudh Thapa, Naorem Mahesh Singh, Nikhil Poojary, Jeakson Singh, Sahal Abdul Samad, Lalengmawia Ralte, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Rowllin Borges, Nandha Kumar.

Forwards: Sunil Chhetri, Rahim Ali, Ishan Pandita.

Wednesday’s matches: Kuwait vs Nepal, 3.30 PM; India vs Pakistan, 7.30 PM.