The Intercontinental Cup has punched above its weight in terms of drama it produced and memories made. Hat-tricks, an honest and heartfelt plea, milestones, debuts and most importantly, packed houses added romance to what was expected to be a dull tournament with Kenya, New Zealand and Chinese Taipei deciding to turn up with weakened squads for the competition.
A Sunil Chhetri treble in India's 5-0 win over Chinese Taipei got the hosts underway. The captain took matters in his own hands to do something about the low attendance in the first game, this time with a smartphone. A 2 minute 24 second plea to his fellow countrymen to come and watch his team play in the stadium did the trick as his 100th game in an Indian shirt against Kenya was a sell out despite torrential rain hitting Mumbai.
A double in a 3-0 win rounded off a near-perfect evening for Chhetri and Co. In the next game against New Zealand, several young players were handed their national team debuts. All didn't go according to plan as the All Whites ran out 2-1 winners, but Jeje Lalpekhlua got his 50th cap for India. Youngster Anirudh Thapa started his third consecutive game in a row at the heart of the midfield and provided enough evidence that he was there to stay.
It was yet another full house as fans kept on cheering their team on despite falling short on the evening. The Viking clap at the end of the game, more than made up for the disappointment for the loss.
Barring the loss against New Zealand, the Intercontinental Cup has been memorable for different reasons.
Chhetri and Co now have the task of finishing the job. Against an upbeat Kenyan side that are determined to right the wrongs of their previous encounter against India, it will take some doing.
Coach Stephen Constantine confirmed he will go back to his full-strength team that started in their wins over Kenya and Chinese Taipei earlier in the tournament after experimenting a bit against New Zealand in the previous game.
The likes of Jeje, Sandesh Jhingan, Anas Edathodika, Subhasish Bose, Udanta Singh, Prannoy Halder and Halicharan Narzary could all return to the side for the final on Sunday.
India will be expected to line-up in their favoured 4-4-1-1 formation, with Chhetri playing just off Jeje upfront, Nazrary and Udanta playing wide, Halder slotting along side Thapa in central midfield, with the tried and tested back four of Jhingan, Edathodika, Kotal and Bose set to renew their partnership.
Rain is expected to have a say in the nature of the contest in the final on Sunday. Suburban Mumbai where the Mumbai Football Arena is located recorded 26.4 mm of rains during the daytime on Saturday. Heavy showers throughout the evening put slight doubts over the game, but the rain mellowed down by midnight before coming to a half by Sunday morning, the game is expected to go on despite possibilities of rainfall on Sunday.
However, the conditions on the field could largely dictate the type of contest we witness. During the first half of the group game between India and Kenya when the rain lashed down on the Mumbai Football Arena, the field became increasingly heavy with a few puddles developing on it.
India's young midfielder Thapa whose strength particularly lies in passing the ball, felt the team will have to adjust their game plan according to the conditions.
"It depends on the ground. If the water stays there then we need to play according to the pitch. If there are puddles we need to play aerial balls but if it’s good enough for passing the ball we will stick to our plan," Thapa said ahead of the final.
A comfortable 3-0 win on the night for India over their final opponents in their previous meeting could play on the minds of the players, but Constantine felt it will have little on no bearing on matters on Sunday.
"I think what you do in the round robin is done and dusted. When you go to the next you cannot take anything for granted and we will not take anything for granted. Kenya showed they are capable especially from set-plays and we need to be very careful. Of course, we respect them but we will try to win the game. Do we have a psychological advantage? We’ll see," the Indian coach said at the pre-match press conference.
Constantine will be wary of the threat Kenya pose from set-plays. India struggled to defender aerial balls in their defensive third against New Zealand, allowing the All Whites few attempts on target. The Englishman hopes the return of centre-back pairing of Jhingan and Edathodika should ease those troubles.
"We will be at full strength for this game. We will have the two central defenders — Sandesh (Jhingan) and Anas (Edathodika) — which will help (against Kenya’s aerial threat). It’s something we have to be careful of," he added.
The Kenyans are expected to take to the field in a 4-3-3 shape. The back four of Jockins Atudo, E Ouma Otieno, Michael Kibwage and Musa Mohammad that started their last two games is likely to remain intact. The midfield of Duncan Otieno, Dennis Odhiambo and Patilah Omoto picks itself. Up front Pistone Mutamba will lead the line. He will be ably supported Ovella Ochieng and Clifton Miheso who'll play as inverted wingers.
Coach Sebastian Migne was in bullish mood ahead of the final as he expressed confidence in his troops to turn around the result in their previous game against India.
“I wanted to play the hosts in the final and I am happy that my players will be facing the team they lost to. But this time around it will be a different result,” he predicted.
India will have to play their best game of the tournament to ensure the Intercontinental Cup that has been a memorable one so far, ends on a positive note. It will be crucial for Indians to take the positivity that this competition has generated into their future assignments as they step up preparations for the AFC Asian Cup.
A tough and possibly a long night — potential extra time and penalties — awaits India, but there's a lot to be gained from it apart from a glittering trophy.
Updated Date: Jun 10, 2018 11:21 AM