Team India has already landed in the Maldives to vie for their eighth SAFF title, a tournament which they have owned since its inception in 1993. With India's recent record not up to the mark, this will be the perfect opportunity for the Igor Stimac-coached side to re-establish themselves.
Technically, there’s no reason to believe why India should not win the SAFF Championships, with seven titles the primary fact to complement it. However, given the vulnerability shown by the Indians against weaker teams in the recent past, ‘complacency’ should be the last thing they can afford. Also working in their favour – known foes against which they’ve played plenty off-late.
On the flip side, the upcoming event might prove to be an acid test for Igor Stimac, who has been under the scanner after a relatively poor show at the 2022 World Cup Qualifying campaign. There’s no better opportunity for the Croat manager to improve his win percentage of 17.6% and gain back the trust of the Indian people.
Unlike the previous edition, where India sent a U-23 squad for the SAFF Championships, they are going with full strength this time around, with just Sandesh Jhinghan missing out owing to his club duties with Croatian outfits HNK Sibenik. So, there’s no scope for excuses even if expectations are not met in the next couple of weeks.
Chinglensana Singh and Seriton Fernandes will hold the key at the heart of the defense, which will undoubtedly define India’s campaign. Even in the last couple of friendlies against Nepal, regulation errors at the particular area were solely responsible for shipping in a goal in each of the two matches. Brandon Fernandes, Glan Martins, and Anirudh Thapa are the usual suspects in the playmaking zone, while Udanta Singh and Liston Colaco should be slated to make use of the wings.
The frontline is pretty much the same – with veteran Sunil Chhetri highlighting the force and players like Manvir Singh, Farukh Chaudhary, and Manvir Singh playing supporting acts. All said and done, the ultra-defensive defensive approach predominantly present in the Igor Stimac-era should be eradicated, or else, as seen so many times before, the Blue Tigers might crumble by making themselves so limited offensively and only relying on the counter for goals.
The 23-man squad for the 2021 SAFF Championships:
Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh, Amrinder Singh, Vishal Kaith.
Midfielders: Udanta Singh, Brandon Fernandes, Lalengmawia, Anirudh Thapa, Sahal Abdul Samad, Jeakson Singh, Glan Martins, Suresh Singh, Liston Colaco, Yasir Mohammad.
Forwards: Manvir Singh, Rahim Ali, Sunil Chhetri, Farukh Choudhary.
Recent form against the contenders
India have played a couple of matches against their arch-rivals Bangladesh in the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers, having shared spoils in the first and winning the other one. The disappointing 1-1 result in front of a packed Salt Lake Stadium, in Kolkata, are still fresh in the memories, but the wounds were somewhat nullified with the 2-0 win in Qatar later on. However, as per the overall records, out of the 30 head-to-head matches played, India have won 16, lost 2, and drawn in the remaining 12 occasions.
Last 5 H2H matches: W, D, D, D, W
Sri Lanka is a team against which India have not played much, having crossed paths in the SAFF Championships, in 2018, 2015 and 2011 editions, which are the last three H2H meetings. India have won in each of those matches. In fact, the last time India lost against their Asian rivals was back in 2000, during the Golden Jubilee Tournament. Out of 16 H2H matches, India have won 9, lost 3 and shared the spoils on 4 occasions.
Last 5 H2H matches: W, W, W, W, D
Fresh from the two-match tour against Nepal away from home, the Indians should have a good measure of the strengths and weaknesses of their neighbours. Igor Stimac’s side huffed and puffed to secure a win in their last International match - which was not the kind of situation everyone was expecting, especially against a lower-ranked side like Nepal. However, they now have a golden opportunity to make amends for the poor show, earlier this month. India is leading the H2H battle, with them winning 14 matches, losing 2, and playing out draws in the remaining 5 matches.
Last 5 H2H matches: W, D, W, W, D
Arguably, the toughest contender for India in the upcoming SAFF Championship and also the defending champions. However, the last time India played against Maldives, a junior team was sent for the assignment. But, a high-voltage match can be expected this time around, especially with the teams set to play in the last group stage match. The top two teams from the group stages will qualify for the final. In 21 H2H encounters, India have won 14, lost 4 and drawn on 2 occasions.
Last 5 H2H matches: L, W, W, W, W
India - Fixtures, Venue, Telecast
Following are India’s fixtures in the group stage:
October 4: Bangladesh vs India (IST 4.30pm).
October 7: India vs Sri Lanka (IST 4.30pm).
October 10: Nepal vs India (IST 8.30pm).
October 13: India vs Maldives (IST 8.30pm).
India is set to face Bangladesh in a tricky match in their opening fixture. However, with matches against Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Maldives coming back-to-back, they have the opportunity to make amends if an initial slip-up occurs. Meanwhile, Afghanistan will miss out on the SAFF Championships, while Pakistan is not eligible to participate, as their Federation was re-sanctioned FIFA status earlier this year. On the other hand, Bhutan will also miss out as their government refused tp grant them permission to travel abroad.
Venue: Maldives National Football Stadium, Male
Telecast: Star Sports Network