Thiruvananthapuram: Six days, nine matches and an astonishing 31 goals later, the SAFF Championship is out of its group stage. Semi-finals beckon four teams that have passed the test — India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Afghanistan. It has been an exhilarating round of fixtures in the group stage, with an average of 3.4 goals scored per match. Defending champions Afghanistan have scored over a third of those goals — 11 in three games — and conceded just one.
It's Afghanistan's last SAFF Championships as they have now moved to the newly formed Central Asian Football Association (CAFA), and they want to finish on a high. But after a miserable World Cup qualifying campaign, hosts India will give their last inch to go all the way.
India will now face Maldives in the first semi-final on 31 December after the 2008 SAFF champions lost 4-1 to Afghanistan in the final group B game. And though the Blue Tigers have momentum following their 4-1 thrashing of Nepal, Maldives have more than enough in them to pull off an upset and send India packing in their own backyard.
Maldives did lose to Afghanistan by a big margin, but the score doesn't come close to illustrate how difficult they made it for them. And Maldives had rested five key players, just like Afghanistan, including their sensational captain Ali Ashfaq.
"We chopped and changed the team quite a bit tonight. I'm not quite sure we'll concede four goals like that again, it was just one of those nights for me. The goals we conceded were poor, now our focus is on the semi-finals," Maldives coach Ricki Herbert said after the loss to Afghanistan.
Herbert didn't seem fazed by the prospect of facing the hosts and tougher opponents India in the semi-finals and was relishing the chance to take on the men in blue.
"I think it's going to be great, all the pressure's on them. They're hosting it, they'll want to win it. I think they need to win it," he said, deflecting the pressure on the Indian team.
Herbert, the former NorthEast United coach, is not wrong. The pressure is on India, especially after a dismal run in the World Cup Qualifiers. True, Constantine is building a young team and has given youngsters a chance to shine (under the Englishman's second spell, 22 Indian players in the space of 10 months have been handed their senior team debuts) but while that is remarkable and encouraging, the results matter. Everyone would fancy India to bring home the SAFF Cup. Even though he doesn't admit it, Constantine must be feeling the pressure.
Although India have played a game less than Maldives and Afghanistan and thus have had more time to rest, recover and train, they have suffered a blow ahead of the do-or-die semi-final fixture. Star striker Robin Singh, who scored both the goals in the opener against Sri Lanka, will miss the rest of the tournament owing to the knee injury he suffered in the same match. An MRI revealed that the striker's knee injury is graver than it looked initially.
With Robin Singh sidelined, India will lose physicality and their aerial threat in the attacking third.
Constantine, who had initially dismissed the injury as "nothing serious", said he was disappointed to lose the Bengaluru FC and Delhi Dynamos striker.
"It's a blow and a loss for us. He had started to score for the national team on a regular basis and is such a hard working guy," the India head coach said ahead of the semi-final clash.
India won't be allowed to replace the injured forward, in accordance with SAFF guidelines.
However, the situation could be a blessing in disguise for the team as Constantine now has the opportunity to go a step beyond his word on trying out young players. The stage is set, and the occasion is big — the semi-finals of the SAFF Championships. Eighteen year old winger Lallianzuala Chhangte has had a dream of a start to his national team career. Constantine has the opportunity to show a bit more faith in him and hand him his first start. The kid will be under pressure but it will be a great opportunity for him to show that he can handle it. If his peach of a goal against Nepal announced an arrival, he now has the perfect chance to prove that he is here to stay.
Indian will also have to be wary of the Maldivian attack -- especially their captain and No 7 Ali Ashfaq. He was saved for the semi-final and the Indian back four will have to keep a tight mark on him. Early on in the match against Nepal, Indian defenders were caught off-guard by Nepal's intent -- Maldives will be no different.
Constantine made five changes to the squad in the second game. One can expect a few changes for the semi-final as well. Gurpreet Singh will be back between the posts and Jeje Lalpekhlua should start up front. But with Sandesh Jhinghan and Anas Edathodika injured, India still don't seem to have a settled defensive combination.
Whatever the Blue Tigers' starting XI may be, all of them must come up with their best to advance to the final on 3 January. After all, they are the hosts. And as Herbert said, the entire nation is looking at them.
Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.
Updated Date: Dec 31, 2015 09:24:38 IST