Maldives test awaits India in SAFF Cup
Two dominating victories in the group stage notwithstading, India face the real test in the the South Asian Football Federation Cup when they take on Maldives in the first semifinals on Thursday.
India, who had beaten Sri Lanka (2-0) and Nepal (4-1) to top Group A, had hardly broke a sweat till now but Maldives are a side which the Stephen Constantine-coached home team ill-afford to take lightly when they clash at the Greenfiled Stadium at Kariavatton on Thursday. Maldives are one of the better sides in South Asia.
Rather, they are the second most successful side in the regional tournament, having won the title once (in 2008) and ended runners-up thrice (1997, 2003 and 2009).
India are also the lower ranked side between the two at 166th while Maldives occupy 160th spot in the latest FIFA charts. Defending champions Afghansitan are the highest ranked side at 150th.
Maldives, where football is a top sport, will also have at least a few hundred supporters at the stands on Thursday as their national airlines, in collaboration with their national federation, have arranged flights for the fans to fly in here for Thursday’s semifinals.
The home side though will have the psychological advantage as they have beaten Maldives in all the knock-out matches the two sides have played in the tournament. India have also been unbeaten in the tournament so far while the tinly island nation lost to Afghanistan (104) in their final group fixure.
Six-time champions India expectedly have been on a roll in the only tournament they have dominated as they have conceded just one goal while scoring six in the two wins they have recorded and they have not shown any weakness so far in the tournament. For India, in-form striker Robin Singh has been ruled out of the remainder of the tournament and it will have to be seen on Thursday whether the home side feels his absence or not though 18-year-old Chhangte Lallianzuala had nicely filled in his place with a double strike against Nepal on Sunday. Mizoram’s Lallianzuala had grabbed with both hands the chance he got in his second international match by becoming the youngest ever goalscorer for India but it’s to be seen if Constantine starts him on Thursday or not.
The head coach himself has said at the post-match press conference that Lallianzuala still has a long way to go.
Captain Sunil Chhetri has been in good touch, having scored once and set up at least three Indian goals.
Constantine may start Jeje Lalphekhlua, who was impressive in the recently-concluded Indian Super League, along with Chhetri upfront.
The back-four could be the weak link for India, if at all it has one. With the injury and ruling out of Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Ethadodika, India are without two best defenders currently. Constantine fielded new combinations at the backline and the coach himself had spoken about this in a post-match press conference.