SAFF Championship: Defending Champions India Face Pakistan in Battle for Spot in Final
After a gap of half a decade, the Indian football team will take on traditional arch-rivals Pakistan in the second semi-final of the ongoing SAFF Championships in Dhaka on Wednesday. India, the defending champions, are aiming for an eighth title and the task this time is easier with the absence of Afghanistan from the competition.
New Delhi: After a gap of half a decade, the Indian football team will take on traditional arch-rivals Pakistan in the second semi-final of the ongoing SAFF Championships in Dhaka on Wednesday. India, the defending champions, are aiming for an eighth title and the task this time is easier with the absence of Afghanistan from the competition.
A much changed Indian team, namely the U-23 squad with Stephen Constantine at helm, registered easy 2-0 victories over Sri Lanka and Maldives to qualify for the semi-final against Pakistan but they have been far from convincing.
Pakistan meanwhile, come into the contest on the back of wins against Bhutan and Nepal and a defeat at the hands of Bangladesh. Pakistan have returned to international football after three troubled years, and have made it to the semi-final of the competition for the first time since 2005, with their best finish dating back to 1997 when they finished third.
"We are aware of the contest. But that is nothing different. It’s just another match. We can't let the occasion get over us and hopefully, we will beat them to advance to the final,” Constantine told the AIFF.
After the first match against Sri Lanka, the Indian coach was categorical in his assessment and said he was unhappy with the way the team - inexperienced and young - played. Not much changed in the second game either as holding onto possession seemed to be a difficult task against an indecisive Maldives who were unable to capitalise on their chances. A profligate Indian attack though nicked it just in time once more and escaped with three points and a scoreline that flattered them.
While Constantine will be hopeful that his team don't get over-awed on Wednesday at the Bangabandhu Stadium, it will be essential for them to hit their stride early on.
Opponents Pakistan survived the fall by the skin of their teeth as they just about managed to get the required goals to stay in the competition. The troubled team are without key players in former captain Kaleemullah who was not fit and has since signed for a Turkish fourth division side, while Danish footballer Adnan Mohammad had visa issues that barred him from joining the squad.
Pakistan coach, Brazil’s Jose Antonio Nogueira took charge earlier this year and since has also helped the U-23 side register their first win in over four decades at the Asian Games. The team, who have been playing a positive brand of football is understandably elated as vice-captain and top goal-scorer of the tournament Hassan Bashir speaks of new Pakistani football.
Experienced Pakistan will hope to keep riding the wave and their most weapon will be through set pieces, especially against an Indian side over whom they have the advantage of physical superiority.
"It's always special to play India. The match has a lot of history and the emotions involved are huge. The rivalry pushes everyone to give that extra bit,” Pakistan defender Zesh Rehman told the AIFF in Dhaka.
"We have to be very cautious and can't afford to let the emotions take over us,” Zesh, the former Fulham FC player said.
The India-Pakistan rivalry is one that is always highly charged with emotions and in the previous 31 meetings, India have won 18 while and five. The last meeting was in 2013 in Kathmandu, when India beat them 1-0, before Pakistan were banned by FIFA for three years from 2015 onwards.
India, led by Subhasish Bose, have been far from convincing and will look to the likes of Anirudh Thapa, Lalianzuala Chhangte and Nikhil Poojary to carry them through. But Pakistan have their tails up and a first ever final appearance at the SAFF Championships beckons.
Pakistan’s players hope to use this performance and effort as a catalyst to revive the sport in their country while India and Constantine will hope to strengthen their bench with the all-important Asian Cup coming up in January.