India face Maldives in a must-win clash on Wednesday at the National Football Stadium in Male. The host nation will require just a draw to book their place in the final of the SAFF Championship 2021.
The Indians, who entered the tournament as favorites, have failed to live up to their billing. Sunil Chhetri's strike in their first match of the campaign was canceled out by the Bangladeshis, with both teams sharing the spoils.
In their next match, a horrendous performance by Igor Stimac's men saw them being held to a draw by Sri Lanka, the lowest-ranked team in Asia. The captain saved India the blushes after he scored a goal against Nepal, giving India a narrow win. The victory kept India in the hunt for a place in the final, but the Blue Tigers will have to overcome Maldives first.
Defending champions Maldives are one point ahead of India in the points table. After suffering a defeat against Nepal in their first match of the Championship, the Red Snappers bounced back to win consecutive games against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. They will need just one point against the Indian side to reach the final of the sub-continental competition for a second consecutive time.
Here are three player battles to watch out for in this all-important clash.
#3 Udanta Singh vs Haisham Hassan
India head coach Igor Stimac has time and again shown his confidence in Udanta Singh over the past few months. The Indian winger has made appearances in all three of the SAFF Championship matches, starting in two of them. His cut-back against Bangladesh was converted into a goal by Sunil Chhetri which put India in the lead against their neighbors.
Even though he has one assist, his performance has been fairly inconsistent. Maldivian left-back Haisham Hassan, a regular in the team, will look to use his experience against the pace of Udanta and subdue his influence.
#2 Ali Ashfaq vs Gurpreet Singh Sandhu
Ali Ashfaq's influence in Maldivian football is similar to Sunil Chhetri's in Indian football. The Maldivian legend has scored 40 goals in 49 matches for the national team. He has also scored 21 goals in the SAFF Championship, two of them coming in this edition.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has gained a lot of recognition for his crucial saves while playing for India, and his role will be paramount against Maldives. If India want to win all three points, Sandhu will need to step up and be at his best against Ashfaq.
#1 Sunil Chhetri vs Mohamed Faisal
Sunil Chhetri has been the shining light in this dismal phase of the Indian national team. The Indian skipper equalled Brazilian legend Pele's international goals tally last match after he scored against Nepal.
However, India's dependency on him to score goals has come under the scanner time and again. Even in the ongoing SAFF Championship, no Indian player has found the back of the net except him. The onus will be on Chhetri once again to provide India with the goals required to win the tie.
Maldives goalkeeper Mohamed Faisal is an experienced campaigner himself. He was taken off in the last game against Sri Lanka after a slight injury but there is no news about his involvement in the next match. If Faisal is given the green light to play, his biggest challenge will be to thwart Sunil Chhetri's efforts and take his country to the final of the tournament.