Bengaluru, July 3 (IANS) Eight-time champions India will be hoping to make the most of their chances in their ninth appearance in the final in the SAFF Championship on Tuesday.
The Blue Tigers are hoping to defend the title they won two years ago and further stretch their dominance in the event when they take on guest side Kuwait in the final of the Bangabandhu SAFF Championship at the SreeKanteerava Stadium on Tuesday.
The 14th edition has been the most competitive and dynamic SAFF Championship of all time as India got the better of Lebanon 4-2 on penalties after two goalless hours in Saturday’s semifinal. The other guest side Kuwait edged Bangladesh 1-0 after extra time in the other last-four clash to set up the summit clash with the region’s heavyweights.
Tuesday’s final will be a hard-fought affair going by what happened in their previous clash in the group stage of the event. It was a thrilling but anticlimactic 1-1 draw from India’s point of view, as an injury-time own goal snatched victory and the Group A top spot away from them.
Head coach Igor Stimac was sent off in the closing stages of that heated encounter and subsequently received a two-match ban, which means assistant coach Mahesh Gawali will take his place on the touchline on Tuesday as he did in the semifinal.
“It was a tense affair last time out against Kuwait, and also Lebanon. We’ve spoken to the boys to be calm and cool and direct all the focus on winning the final. It will be a totally different game. We have a positive feeling, and hope we can continue how we’ve been doing so far,” said Gawali at the pre-match press conference on Monday.
Gawali lifted the SAFF Championship trophy twice as a player -– first in 2005, in Karachi, and then in 2011 in New Delhi. But winning it as a coach will be a remarkable feat for the former central defender, especially with the quality of the teams in this edition.
“This one is going to be more difficult (to win). Kuwait are a good opponent, and the competition has been tough. Back then, we only played against SAFF teams. Winning in Karachi in 2005 was very enjoyable, but if we win tomorrow, the joy will be of a different level,” he said.
Gawali’s counterpart in the current team, SandeshJhingan, who missed the semifinal due to suspension, cannot wait to step onto the pitch for the summit clash and win his first SAFF title. In his absence, Mehtab Singh and Anwar Ali marshalled the defence, leading India to yet another clean sheet.
“I missed being on the pitch. You don’t want to miss the big games, but that’s how football is sometimes,” Jhingan was quoted as saying in a release by AIFF in a story on its website on Monday.
“But I think the team did really well. Sitting out there watching the game, I didn’t feel they missed me much. Mehtab, Anwar and the whole backline did well,” he said.
Watching from the stands alongside Stimac and Rahim Ali (who will also be back for the final), Jhingan shared that they had full faith in his teammates’ ability to overcome Lebanon again as they did in Bhubaneswar last month.
“To be honest, I was pretty confident we would get through. I was preparing for the final. Now, the whole focus is on Kuwait. They have been the toughest team to face in the last 8-10 games we’ve played. It’s going to be difficult, and we’re looking forward to it. God bless we win it and make you all happy,” hoped Jhingan.
India’s defence of late has been almost impregnable, conceding just one goal in their last 10 matches. Jhingan, who was named the Hero of the Tournament in the Intercontinental Cup, acknowledged and appreciated Gawali’s significant contribution to the Blue Tigers’ rigidity at the back.
“Mahesh bhai was one of the best defenders India had during his playing days. We all looked up to him, and it’s amazing for us to have had a longer camp with him. We have received praise for our solid defensive job, and a lot of credit should go to him. He gives us his inputs all the time in every session. The system is what brings the best out of any player,” Jhingan said on Monday.
Both Gawali and Jhingan are quite aware that the Indian team’s solid defence will face a tough challenge from the attacking flair of Kuwait.
Kuwait head into the final in a rich vein of form, having not lost any of their last eight matches. Abdullah Al-Bloushi has been the spearhead for the West Asians in their previous two games. He scored the winner against Bangladesh in the first half of extra time with an accurate low strike. Against India, it was his cross from the right, which got deflected into the net by Anwar Ali for an own goal.
However, along the lines of Gawali, Kuwait head coach Rui Bento also expects the final to be a distinct affair from the group-stage match.
“Yes we played a tough game against India, but from my experience over all these years, the final is always a different game. We will fight for the trophy. It’s very important for the players to try to stay focused and play well. We have worked hard to reach the final, and my message to them will be to enjoy the game,” said Bento.
The Portuguese took charge of the Kuwait national team last year and is now one match away from winning the nation’s first trophy since the 2010 Arabian Gulf Cup, where they beat Saudi Arabia in the final.
“We have played seven games in the last 21 days. That’s a lot of games in a short time. But now it’s one final, and we will give our maximum. We need to believe in our process,” concluded Bento.