Indians eye revenge vs more favoured Afghans
OUR Special Correspondent
Stephen Constantine with India players and support staff, during a practice
session, in Thiruvananthapuram, on Saturday
New Delhi: Till a few years ago, India were regarded as the giants of South Asian football, whose domination in the SAFF Cup hardly ever raised an eyebrow. So much so, in the 2009 edition in Dhaka, India preferred to field an under-23 side and yet bagged the title with consummate ease.
Things have changed since then. In the 2013 Kathmandu meet, India were truly troubled by Bangladesh and Nepal before being beaten convincingly in the final by Afghanistan. Currently, there are two teams - Afghanistan and Maldives - who are ahead of India in the latest Fifa rankings.
There are considerable apprehensions when India play Afghanistan in the final in Thiruvananthapuram on Sunday, the hosts may be forced to finish runners-up for the second time on the trot. So much is the pressure that even India coach, Stephen Constantine, described the rivals as favourites.
Asked whether India are in a position to beat Afghanistan, Constantine said: "They are a very good side. We will fight from the first to the last minute. If we play our best and they don't have a good day, we can win."
But then, not everybody is impressed by what Constantine has to say. "We have an even chance of winning the match on home turf," felt former India captain IM Vijayan.
"I know that Afghanistan are packed with footballers, who play in minor leagues in Europe. But we, too, have a good combination of youth and experience. They are not unaware of how to play in the final," said Vijayan.
Vijayan was not far from the truth. In the three matches India played so far, they displayed enough skills to regain their hold in the regional meet. They scored nine goals in three matches and looked a side, who have developed a good understanding in the midfield. The premature exit of striker Robin Singh because of an injury is definitely a blow, but both Sunil Chetri and Jeje Lalpekhlua have given a good account of themselves.
In the midfield, Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Rowlin Borges have remained constant source of trouble for the rivals. The only worry is the defence, which committed more than one mistake in the semi-final against Maldives.
But then, Afghanistan are certainly the most improved side in the region. From being a team, who were humbled 0-4 by India in the final in New Delhi in 2011, Afghanistan have come a long way to emerge the best in the region. In the last few years, a lot of their footballers preferred to play club football abroad because of political troubles in their country and it turned out to be the blessing in disguise.
In the group stage, Afghanistan steamrolled all oppositions but their German coach, Peter Segrt made it clear his ultimate aim was to once again take back the trophy home.
"This is what matters... The final is what matters. Nobody cares if we won all our games in the group stages. The final is what we came for and we have to win it for the people of Afghanistan," said the former Georgia under-21 coach.
Afghanistan's biggest advantage is their players look relatively fitter and stronger than the rivals. Having played in places like the US, Denmark, Germany, Bahrain and Malaysia, they have learned professionalism the hard way and would like to take a grip over the match in the early stages.
India, on the other hand, would have to play within their limitations and wait for the chances to come their way to regain the title after two years.