SAFF Final: India battle Kuwait for ninth title
Photograph: Kind Courtesy AIFF/Twitter
Defending champions India would look to preserve a proud record and add a ninth title to their shelf when they face a tough Kuwait in the SAFF Championship final in Bengaluru on Tuesday.
India were stretched to a penalty shootout by Lebanon in the semifinals before winning 4-2, while Kuwait had to wait till extra time to eke out a 1-0 victory over Bangladesh.
In fact, this will be the second time India will face Kuwait in the tournament. They had played out a 1-1 draw in an acrimonious Group A match last week.
India might just appear to have a slight upper hand in front of a hugely partisan home crowd at the Kanteerava Stadium.
But there is a worrying aspect. Will India be able to give their best in the final after they were made to toil for two matches in succession?
India assistant coach Mahesh Gawli sought to allay such concerns.
“I’d like to say that if you get one week, you can’t do anything. But when you get one month or more you work more on fitness,” said Gawli.
“I think we had almost 50 days. Our strength and conditioning coach, Luka Radman, has done a wonderful job. We have seen our players playing without injuries, and there have been no cramps as well.”
In the final, India will also be boosted by the return of key defender Sandesh Jhingan. He had missed the semifinal against Lebanon owing to two accumulated yellow cards against Pakistan and Kuwait.
Anwar Ali had replaced Jhingan in the line-up against Lebanon in the semifinals, and he did an excellent job in thwarting Lebanese advances.
Head coach Igor Stimac will be absent from the India dug out in this match as well after he was slapped with two-match ban by the SAFF disciplinary committee.
Stimac had received his second red card of the tournament during the match against Kuwait. Earlier, he was slapped with a red card in India’s tournament opener against Pakistan.
However, India, under the talismanic Sunil Chhetri, had shown a streak of determination to rise above obstacles.
After scoring in three successive matches in the group stage, Chhetri was not able to find the back of the net in the semifinals against Lebanon. Of course, he converted a penalty in the shootout, but the striker would like to make a heftier contribution in the summit clash.
India would also hope that Sahal Abdul Samad, Mahesh Singh and Udanta Singh will continue to be energetic on the field, feeding Chhetri with those dreaded crosses.
Mahesh, who is usually deployed as a winger, was fielded behind Chhetri against Lebanon to add more support to the skipper. Gawli indicated a continuation of that strategy in the final as well.
“We wanted him to play there (in wings) and feed the wingers and Sunil Chhetri. He was doing that. We kept Ashique (Kuruniyan) on the left because of the physicality, and he was doing well. He was running a lot. We did not want to change that,” Gawli said.
But the Indians know that Kuwait are a battle-hardened side, and nothing less than their best would suffice.
Jhingan confident of victory against Kuwait in final
Without disregarding the strength of Kuwait, India defender Sandesh Jhingan on Monday said the hosts are confident of winning the SAFF Championship.
“Our focus is now on Kuwait, it is going to be a tough game. They are a very good team. They have an experienced coach. We are looking forward to it. We have done well together and sky is the limit for this batch,” said Jhingan during the pre-match press conference.
“They have very technical players, and individually, they are also good. About their (FIFA)ranking (141), everyone knows that they aren’t where they should be. If you don’t do your thing for 10 seconds, they score against you,” added Jhingan.
Jhingan just can’t wait to take the field after missing the semifinal against Lebanon due to the two accumulated yellow cards in the group matches against Pakistan and Kuwait.
“I missed being on the field (against Lebanon) like any other footballer. I don’t want to miss the big games. But the team did really well, and I don’t think I was missed much. Mehtab Singh did well and Anwar Ali did well, and the entire backline did well.
“It is all about team philosophy and unity. I was personally confident that we will get through to the final,” he said.
The veteran defender had words of appreciation for Anwar, who was exceptional against Lebanon.
“We all know about Anwar’s condition (Hypertrophic Cardio Myopathy). Coming out of it needs a strong mentality, and credit to his family for supporting him. He is doing very well at the moment,” Jhingan added.
India have never lost a final at home since 2005, and assistant coach Mahesh Gawli hoped his side will handle the pressure well.
“There is pressure because we want to win. The team is doing very well and I hope they play the same as they were doing,” Gawli said.
India and Kuwait were involved in a heated Group A match, which ended in a 1-1 draw, a few days ago.
However, Gawli said he has told the players to remain calm and focus on the task at hand.
“The last match against Kuwait was very heated. But we have spoken to the boys and asked them to be calm and cool because it is a game, and we have to win,” he said.
India skipper Sunil Chhetri left the field limping after the match against Lebanon, but Gawli allayed all the fitness concerns.
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