Built around youth and commitment, an overhauled India will look to capitalise on the enthusiasm of the freshers when they lock horns with emerging regional powerhouse Afghanistan in the final of South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Cup on Sunday.
In recent years, strife-torn Afghanistan have emerged as a formidable challenge to six-time winners India.
Coached by Stephen Constantine, the home side’s hegemony in the regional tournament will be once again tested by the defending champions, this time at the Trivandrum International Stadium.
India, in the 2011 edition’s final in New Delhi, rode Sunil Chhetri’s hat-trick to blank Afghanistan 4-0. Two years later, in Kathmandu, the Afghans exacted a sweet revenge, coming out a 2-0 winner in the summit showdown.
From the squad that suffered a reverse in 2013, only five players – Chhetri, Jeje Lalpekhlua, Arnab Mondal, Subrata Paul and Robin Singh – figure in Constantine’s current team that mostly comprises promising talents.
Even as Afghanistan beat every team hands down in terms of goals scored in the tournament, India, too, posses a potent strike-force upfront.
Despite the absence of an injured Robin Singh, who scored a couple of times in the initial games, India have enough firepower in attack to rattle the opponents’ defence.
Skipper Chhetri is everytime expected to lead from the front, which he does so often, while the in-from Jeje, who struck twice in the 3-2 semifinal win over Maldives, is a perfect partner in attack. Chhetri finished 2015 as India’s top scorer with six goals.
The experienced Chhetri and the fairly experienced Jeje, 24, will be supported by Holicharan Narzary and 18-year-old Mizoram striker Lallianzuala Chhangte.
Rated highly by his teammates, Chhangte burst into the limelight when he scored two brilliant goals after coming on as a substitute in India’s win over Nepal in the league stage.
Having earned praise from Constantine for his performance, Rowlin Borges will be a key figure in midfield though he is relatively inexperienced. Borges will have the dynamic Eugeneson Lyngdoh as partner in the middle of the park. With Bikash Jairu nicely using the width on the left, the Briton will have a decent midfield at his disposal.
Having netted in 16 goals in four matches with striker Khaibar Amani leading the way with five strikes to his name, the Lions of Khorasan present a formidable attacking unit. They trounced Bangladesh 4-0 and Maldives 4-1.
Taking into account Afghanistan’s potent attack, the Indian back-four of Pritam Kotal, Arnab Mondal, Augustine Fernandez and Narayn Das will be severely tested in the title clash.
Afghanistan enjoyed more possession in the 5-0 drubbing of Sri Lanka in the semifinal, and made good use of the flanks through Zubair Amiri and Omid Popalzay.
India also enjoyed a clear edge over their opponents for a major part of the match, but they were guilty of wasting many chances and almost let Maldives claw their way back into the game.
A triumph will be a sort of consolation for the Indian team after its disastrous outing in the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification.