SAFF Cup first impressions: Defending champs Afghanistan are the team to beat; Maldives not too far behind

After the SAFF Championship's first double-header on Thursday, all participating teams except India have played their opening match. Day two saw Maldives, Bhutan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh in action. Here is Firstpost's take on how the teams looked in their opening fixtures.

Maldives vs Bhutan: Maldives dominate but finishing worries could prove costly

The opening match of the day-two of the tournament was supposed to be a low-key affair, it turned out to be anything but. The 2008 SAFF Champions Maldives, a tiny archipelago nation in the Indian ocean, took on Bhutan, the Buddhist kingdom from the Himalayas. And Maldives seemed anything but tiny between those 90 minutes on the ground.

 SAFF Cup first impressions: Defending champs Afghanistan are the team to beat; Maldives not too far behind

Players of Maldives and Bhutan in action during their SAFF Cup match. PTI

The island nation roared to a 3-1 win in their opening group clash and their goal tally could have easily been in double figures had they pounced on all their chances. Bhutan, barring their out of the blue equaliser in the first-half and another occasion when they hit the post in the second half, were simply outplayed.
The standout performer from the match was the Maldivian skipper Ashfaq Ali. He terrorised Bhutan every time his team pressed forward and capped his brilliant performance with a goal to match — a bullet into the top corner of the net from outside the box. At times, he danced around Bhutanese defence and skipped tackles like a gazelle and exhibited unselfish play, passing the ball to a teammate even after dribbling past two defenders and finding space on many occasions.

Ashfaq, if one dares to say, looked like Xavi or Pirlo at the height of their powers — driving his team forward, picking out passes, putting teammates through and taking on defenders with sublime grace. He is definitely the player to watch to out for in Group B.

In the post-match press conference, the Bhutan coach Pema also praised Ashfaq. "He is a good player, number seven. I don't want to say anything else about him," he said.

The manager also blamed luck for not being in his team's favour, pointing out his team missed chances. However, luck had little to do with the way Maldives dictated the game. Bhutan have a lot of work to do before they face defending Champions Afghanistan a day after Christmas. Bhutan coach summed it up aptly, "We might've lost the first match but we will not lose hope."

The only worrying detail for Maldives would be the inability to convert the ridiculous amount of chances they created. Many of them were sitters — free headers from arm's length and one on ones. Maldives might just be serious contenders to go all the way if they improve their finishing before tougher clashes. Chances that go begging in big games come back to haunt you.

Maldives coach Herbert Ricki Lloyd too admitted that the team's finishing needed work, but was pleased with his team's performance.

"At the end of the day I'd rather have my team create 30-40 opportunities and score three than create none," the Maldives coach said in the post-match presser.

Amen to that.

Afghanistan vs Bangladesh: Defending champions look hungry for more

Afghanistan opened their campaign in fine style to dispatch 182nd ranked Bangladesh 4-0 in their Group B clash. The defending champions looked to stamp their authority early on in the match, even though for the first ten minutes or so the game was balanced on an even keel.

But as soon as Afghanistan broke the deadlock through a Masih Saighani header off a corner, it seemed as if the floodgates were opened. Their patience had been rewarded, and just a minute later captain, and probably the best player on the ground, Faysal Shayesteh found the net with a lobbed shot, doubling the lead.

Afghanistan, playing a 4-3-3 formation, pressed continuously, with Noraollah Amiri, Mustafa Zazai and Faysal combining to keep Bangladesh on the back foot. Bangladesh looked nervous and had lost the plot quite early.

Five minutes away from half-time, Amiri capped his two assists with a goal - overall a brilliant performance.

But, it was Faysal who looked completely in control and was the pick of the lot. Twelve minutes into second-half, Faysal pulled off a series of step-overs right inside the penalty area to leave the Bangladeshi defenders baffled.

It wasn't just the way Afghanistan pressed that impressed, but also how they held back mid way through second-half when they realised that the job was done. They substituted key players and took the foot off the pedal, keeping mind their upcoming games.

And the substitutions paid off too as Khaibar Amani came off the bench to score in the 69th minute after engineering a beautiful move, exchanging passes with his teammates near the penalty box.

Afghanistan coach Petar Segrt talked about the shift of tactics in the second half in the post-match conference.

"We have to save energy for the next game. That is most important. It's three games in six days," he said.

Afghanistan mean business and they are here to be champions again. It was as if they played the entire match without their heart-rate shooting up, with stone-faced professionalism. Their composure and maturity during tense moments speaks volume about not just their technical ability, but also their strong belief in it. They are confident, they are sure, and they are the team to beat.

But Segrt, just like his team, kept his foot off the pedal in the presser. "It's too early to say we are favourites. We won the first game and don't care about who's favourite or not. We'll take our games one by one... We saw Sri Lanka beat Nepal yesterday. Everything can happen in this tournament, it is very young," he said.

Hosts India would fancy their chances to go all the way in the SAFF Cup. But a slew of injuries and fatigue from the ISL will make the road harder for them. Afghanistan and Maldives would have taken note of that and might fancy their chances to upstage India in their backyard.

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Updated Date: Dec 25, 2015 14:49:52 IST