SAFF Championship: a must-win game for India against Maldives
India, still unbeaten but hugely disappointing so far, takes on Maldives in its last round-robin league match of the SAFF Championships here on Wednesday, knowing well that nothing less than a victory will save it from elimination.
A draw or a loss will put India out of reckoning for a place in the final of the regional tournament and that will be the worst result for the team in recent memory, which could also raise questions about head coach Igor Stimac’s continuation.
The worst performance for seven-time champion India before this edition was a third-place finish in 2003 and it has either won or finished runner-up in 11 previous editions.
All the four top sides in the five-team tournament remain in contention for the October 16 final.
With five points from two draws and one win, India is currently third below Maldives and Nepal, both with six points from three matches. Nepal plays Bangladesh (fourth with four points) also on Wednesday.
Two-time winner and defending champion Maldives has never been an easy opponent for India in the regional tournament. Led by veteran Ali Ashfaq, one of the best strikers in the region, Maldives has regrouped after losing its opener to Nepal, beating Bangladesh 2-0 and Sri Lanka 1-0.
Just like India captain Sunil Chhetri, the 36-year-old Ashfaq has carried Maldives football on his shoulders for a long time and has scored two of his side’s three goals in this tournament. He will, no doubt, be the man India will have to be wary about.
The absence of the experienced Sandesh Jhingan in deep defence was felt as India could not hold on to a 1-0 lead against 10-man Bangladesh, which scored a late equaliser despite numerical inferiority.
In the second match against 205th-ranked Sri Lanka, the Indian forwards, including Chhetri, could not create enough chances and also failed to finish whatever few scoring opportunities they got for a 0-0 draw.
Chhetri came to the team’s rescue once again against Nepal, scoring the decisive goal to equal Pele in the previous match, but the question is how long India will keep relying on a 37-year-old warhorse to find the opposition net.
Nippy winger Udanta Singh has been inconsistent though he has shown flashes of brilliance on the flanks while Seriton Fernandes in defence and Brandon Fernandes in the midfield have done reasonably well.
Stimac has rued the inability of his forwards to convert the scoring chances.
“We need to improve our scoring from the chances which we are creating. It is simple, if we do that, games become very easy. Otherwise you need to suffer till the end, or even beyond the end,” Stimac said, still believing India can reach the final.