Preview: A final berth in grasp along with a morale-boosting emotional connect with the fans, the Indian football team would be aiming for another big win when it takes on a relatively young New Zealand in what has been declared a sold-out match of the Intercontinental Cup on Thursday.
The low-profile four-nation tournament, dismissed as devoid of quality at the very outset, captured the public imagination courtesy a one and a half minute video by Indian skipper Sunil Chhetri appealing for fans' support before his 100th appearance for the country.
The message struck such a chord that it put the entire tournament in spotlight and gave Chhetri one of the most memorable outings of his more than a decade-long career as even a heavy downpour failed to stop the fans from packing the Mumbai Football Arena.
File image of Sunil Chhetri in action in the Intercontinental Cup. Image Courtesy: AIFF
He gave them what they had come for, scoring twice to guide India to a 3-0 win over Kenya. The win took the hosts into the final.
The organisers claim that the tickets for Thursday's match as well as Sunday's final have been sold out.
On to the footballing matters, after having blanked Chinese Taipei and Kenya, India will look to complete a hat-trick of wins on Thursday.
But it remains to be seen whether coach Stephane Constantine sticks to playing his best XI or attempts a few changes to give stars like Chhetri and defender Sandesh Jhingan a break.
The match against Kenya, which India won 3-0, was played under heavy rain and the soaked turf became an opposition in its own right for both the teams. The match was a physically draining one and man of the match defender Jhingan had limped off after an awkward fall.
Should Chhetri skip the match on Thursday, someone like Balwant Singh might get a chance.
The hosts also have an array of attacking midfielders like Udanta Singh, Anirudh Thapa and Pronay Halder.
They will have to play their part to perfection if the likes of Kiwi striker Myer Bevan have to be restricted.
And India also have an equally strong defence with players like Pritam Kotal.
Add to it the likes of Narayan Das and Subhashis Bose, the Kiwi strikers will have a hard time.
The game will also be special for Jeje Lalpekhlua as it will be his 50th match in national colours.
New Zealand coach Fritz Schmid has said that the game would be a big challenge.
India have a great custodian in the form of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu but a young Vishal Kaith or Amrinder Singh could get a game.
But despite India being the firm favourites to win the match, New Zealand could spoil their party by giving a tough fight.
Updated Date: Jun 07, 2018 22:49 PM