For a third time running, India and Afghanistan have made it to the SAFF Championships final. In the 2011 edition, India had thrashed Afghanistan 4-0 at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi to be crowned champions for the sixth time. Skipper Sunil Chhetri and Jeje had had scored a goal apiece in the game. Chhetri, in fact was the tournament's runaway top scorer with seven goals to his name. Two years later, the Lions of Khorasan exacted their revenge. Afghanistan beat India 2-0 to win their maiden SAFF title.
Fast forward two more years, and Afghanistan look overwhelming favourites to defend their crown, despite the tournament returning to India 's home soil. Even India head coach Steven Constantine has no doubts about that.
"I'll have to say Afghanistan are the favourites tomorrow. Mainly because they have around 15 players playing in European countries. And there's a huge gap between Asian players and European players. We faced a similar problem with Guam. Where people were saying how can't you beat a country with 90,000 population. But they had a squad had players who all played in the United States," Constantine said in a press conference ahead of the final.
It is clear that Constantine is trying to take off some of the pressure on his players by deflecting attention to the Afghanistan team. By calling your opposition favourites, you put the pressure back on them. And it also serves as an age old excuse, an "I told you so" fair warning to fall back on to if you lose the game.
But the thing is, even though Constantine is downplaying India's cards in this final hand, he's not wrong. Afghanistan look far superior than the hosts. They too have a new and young squad. Fifteen of their players are settled in European countries or elsewhere, where they play in professional football leagues and hold two passports. Constantine has been beating the drum about allowing players of Indian origin (PIO) to play for the Blue Tigers. But as per rules, only Indian citizens can play for team India. These bunch of young 19 players is all they have right now to put forward against the defending champions.
But it isn't that bad. These young players, whom Constantine has focused upon in a bid to "build for the future" have given all they have. They are hungry. A lot of work needs to be done but the team has showed promise. India had a disastrous World Cup qualifying campaign. Then the physically punishing ISL followed. And now India is in the SAFF Championships and they have reached the final, which not many expected them to do, considering team India's fortunes in the past year.
"Of course, when you enter a tournament you want to win. But with such a young squad and such little time to prepare , I think the boys have done a fantastic job to get to the finals," Constantine said.
The road has been a bit bumpy. India have not quite stamped their authority on the way here, but they have done enough. However, 'enough' won't be good enough against Afghanistan. The defending champions have done much more than 'enough' to reach the finals of their last SAFF Championships. Scoring 16 goals in four games and conceding just one, Afghanistan look invincible. but Constantine doesn't believe that.
"They are a very good side, but are they unbeatable? No they are not. We will fight. Make no mistake, we will fight from the first minute to the last minute. If we play our best and they don't have a good day, we can win," the Englishman said.
That statement hardly gives one hope.
But even if India doesn't reclaim the SAFF crown, they can take positives from this outing. There are a lot of new faces in the Indian team right now. And they have impressed. Eighteen-year-old Lallianzuala Chhangte, 23-year-old Rowlin Borges and 22-year-old Narayan Das have left an indelible mark on minds of Indian football fans and have gained invaluable experience form the tournament. SAFF has been a sign for what is coming. It has in a way answered a question that Indian football fans keep asking— what is next?
"I want to develop a team. I'm trying to develop competition in all positions. I want players who are in the team to feel pressure from players who are not in the team. And I think, going to the (SAFF Championships) final has done exactly that," he further said.
As the Blue Tigers trained at the Trivandrum International Stadium on Saturday evening, 24 hours before the final, one could see a good mix of players who would fight for each other. One could see how the young ones look up to Sunil Chhetri. One could see a healthy competition between the 23-year-old goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and the 29-year-old veteran Subrata Pal.
They'll have to climb an Afghan mountain on Sunday. They'll have to focus and not make the same defensive errors they made in the semi-finals against Maldives. Afghanistan will punish them if they do. The midfield will have to be much more fluid and mobile. Rowlin Borges will have to run a lot and Eugeneson Lyngdoh will have to open up play in front of him. Robin Singh will be missed. His physicality, aerial strength would've come nifty against the buffed up Afghan defenders. It'll be upto Chhetri and Jeje to use their pace and rush into those dangerous channels that lead to goals. Jeje will have to convert those chances that come calling. You won't get many against Afghanistan.
Holicharan Narzary, who has impressed in absence of Robin Singh with his excellent work rate and physical prowess, will have to deflect attention from the two marksmen. And then, as Constantine said, it will have to be one those not-so-good days for Afghanistan.
That's a lot of things to ask for in a single game.
Afghanistan's coach Petar Segrt and captain Faysal Shayesteh have repeatedly said they are playing for their people. Come Sunday, the Blue Tigers will have to play for themselves to steal Afghanistan's parting present.