|India hope to tame inspired Maldives
Calcutta/Kathmandu: Defending champions India will have to play out of their skin when they take on an inspired Maldives in the semi-final of the SAFF Championship on Monday.
The six-time champions have always been overwhelming favourites in the South Asian region, putting up dominating performances and winning tournaments with ease.
However, the current crop of players has failed to live up to that reputation in the ongoing SAFF Championship.
Wim Koevermans’ boys have been pathetic. In the three matches they have played so far, they have managed to win only once, thanks to Pakistan captain Samar Ishaq’s own goal. They drew against Nepal and suffered a humiliating loss to Nepal.
That they managed to qualify for the semi-final was only because of a better head-to-head result against Pakistan.
To make matters worse, skipper Sunil Chetri will be unable to take the field due to double booking. The suspension means that India’s striking options have become limited.
Whether Koevermans sticks to his one striker formula by playing a 4-5-1 formation or he changes to a more familiar 4-4-2 can decide the course of the match.
If the Dutch coach opts for 4-4-2, he will be forced to field Robin Singh from the start with a horribly out-of-form Jeje Lalpekhlua.
In Chetri’s absence, Gouramangi Singh is expected to wear the captain’s arm-band.
It will be interesting to see the experienced campaigner guides his fellow stopper Arnab Mondal, who has found it extremely difficult to replicate his club performance.
Mondal has made some mistakes at the heart of the defence and the onus will be on Gouramangi to motivate the youngster.
If the performance of the forward line and defence are definitely causes for concern for Koevermans, the showing of the midfielders hasn’t been up to the mark either.
The performance of the vastly-experienced Mehtab Hussain and the immensely talented Lenny Rodrigues has been disappointing. Syed Rahim Nabi, on the left flank, has also failed to impose himself. They lacked creativity and vision and did not threaten the opponent.
The find of the tournament has certainly been young Francis Fernandes, who has shown a lot of mobility on the right flank.
What has also ailed India is Nirmal Chetri’s speed on the right wing. Time and again, one saw Nirmal gasping for breath, trying to get back to his position after an overlap.
The lack of training time has also made matters worse as the players haven’t been able to gel properly.
Maldives, on the other hand, have proved to be the best team of the tournament thus far. The island nation has scored as many as 18 goals in three matches with their skipper Ali Ashfaq alone pumping in 10.
Goalkeeper Subrata Paul feels Maldives are not only about Ashfaq.
“Ali is not the only one. They are a very good unit and very dangerous. They may have scored 18 goals but we are also not that bad a team. No one is a favourite. If we can convert our chances, we can win the game,” said Subrata.
Ali, meanwhile, said this is the weakest Indian team. Subrata didn’t wish to react to the comment, saying: “We will play the match on the field. We will see how it goes.”
Will Chetri be missed? Subrata said: “He is a great player. But we have a strong bench and it will be an opportunity for others to step up and take the responsibility.”
Koevermans says they are raring to go. “We are happy we have a bit of rest prior to the semi-final. There’s more energy in the squad. I don’t need to motivate anyone. Tomorrow will be a tough match. Maldives are a strong opposition. We are focussed,” said Koevermans.
Match starts: 6.15pm.