SAFF Championship 2013 Final Preview: Afghanistan vs India
Kickoff: Wednesday, September 11 2013, 18:15 IST
Venue: Dasarath Stadium, Kathmandu, Nepal
Looking for revenge
Even before the start of the tournament, several Afghanistan players were talking about taking revenge for that SAFF 2011 final loss, which they still put down to the officiating of Singapore referee Sukhbir Singh. Now, with the final against India confirmed, Afghanistan skipper Zohib Islam Amiri and assistant coach Ali Jawad Attayee once again talked about making up for that defeat two years ago. And like Maldives, they were also quite vocal about the current India side’s weaknesses.
Maldives’ pre-match comments about India came back to haunt them and Afghanistan would hope that is not the case in tomorrow’s final. The Afghans are placed six spots above India in the FIFA Rankings, have qualified for the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup unlike Wim Koevermans’ side and have been in good form in this calendar year. All that possibly makes them favourites but Afghanistan must have learnt lessons from Maldives’ semi-final display and thus should not take India for granted.
Although they qualified for the semi finals comfortably, Afghanistan, like India, were a bit unconvincing in the group stage. The 3-0 win over Bhutan in the opener flattered them a bit as they were not at their best while their opponents also failed to convert a penalty. In the second game against Sri Lanka, Afghanistan had to come from behind to win 3-1 while in the final group match they played out a goalless draw with Maldives. That result set up a clash against hosts Nepal in the semi-final and in that game Afghanistan showed why they are the highest ranked team in the region as they produced a professional display to win 1-0. Germany-based goalkeeper Mansur Faqiryar was in inspired form but Afghanistan did have plenty of chances from counter attacks to win by a bigger margin. It was by far the best performance by a team against Nepal at SAFF 2013.
It would be interesting to see how Afghanistan cope with the favourites tag as two years ago they were not even among the contenders for the South Asian title. Most of the SAFF 2011 squad has been retained and Coach Yousef Kargar was also in charge two years ago. So there is plenty of determination in the squad to avoid a second straight runners-up finish.
Afghanistan are physically and technically better than India but the key difference is made by the several foreign-based players who not only have quality but also the mentality to perform in big matches. This undoubtedly is the golden era of Afghanistan football and it started with their impressive showing at SAFF 2011. The war-torn nation have reached some great heights in the last two years and now would be aiming to reach the pinnacle by winning their first-ever South Asian crown.
Hat-trick in sight
There has been a lot of negativity surrounding the Indian national team before and during the tournament, but the coach and players have responded in a positive way; with a strong showing against Maldives in the semi-final being a proof of the same. Historically, India have always been the favourites in this tournament and the current squad was clearly feeling the pressure in the group stage. They were getting severely criticised by media, fans and former players and then the opposing teams also got into the act.
That eventually went in favour of India as suddenly the pressure decreased while coach Wim Koevermans used the opposition’s comments to motivate his players and in the end it proved to be decisive as his side deservedly beat Maldives 1-0 to keep their hat-trick hopes alive.
The three days’ rest before the semi-final helped India’s cause as they looked fresher than Maldives but what was more encouraging was the fact that the team performed in the absence of their talisman and skipper, Sunil Chhetri. Koevermans hasn’t got much credit during his reign so far but in Monday’s semi-final he tactically outclassed Maldives’ Hungarian coach Istvan Urbanyi, who became irrational after the game. Koevermans now has the chance to not only achieve what the highly popular Bob Houghton failed to do at SAFF 2008 but also become the first foreign head coach of India to win the tournament since Jiri Pesek of Czech Republic in 1993. The Dutchman failed to qualify for the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup which ended India’s hopes of featuring in the 2015 Asian Cup. So winning this tournament will be a much-needed consolation.
India were tactically brilliant against Maldives as they frustrated Ali Ashfaq throughout the game but it will be a much different test against Afghanistan as Koevermans’ side won’t have the advantage in the air. India will also be wary of Afghanistan’s technical quality and with just one day of recovery, it will be very difficult for the holders to match the physical intensity that they showed in the semi-final. However the return of skipper Sunil from suspension will be a massive boost and add much needed bite to India’s attack which looked like the only weakness against Maldives. The pressure is also back on India now after the impressive semi-final showing and Koevermans talked about the need for improvement from his players in crunch situations. India passed the Maldives test in impressive fashion but the final against Afghanistan will be a tougher challenge. And if Koevermans’ boys overcome that, the Dutchman will deserve a longer stay at the helm while the players will completely silence their critics.