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India all geared for Maldives challenge

Sunil Chhetri and Jeje Lalpekhlua

Sunil Chhetri and Jeje Lalpekhlua

“Don’t care!” The statement from Maldives’ Hungarian Coach Istvan Bela Urbanyi may have seemed arrogant but it echoed confidence and belief in his players. “We just don’t care as to who we will be playing in the semis. We are ready for any team,” he reiterated. All that was immediately after Maldives had topped Group A to qualify for the semifinal of the SAFF Championship.

A day later, his rival counterpart, Team India Coach Savio Mediera preferred to play it safe. “Maldives are a good team. They have some good players,” he commented after India booked their ticket to play Maldives in the semifinal of the SAFF Championship.

On the surface, it’s India vs Maldives. Beneath it, it’s a fight to stamp an authority – and it’s between two stalwarts in the respective teams – Ali Ashfaq vs Sunil Chhetri. One could afford to push aside a call from Portuguese giants Benfica citing he was too young; the other stayed unlucky not to get a permit to play at QPR and had to eventually move to MLS Club Kansas City. The strategy is likely to be the same: ‘Stop Ashfaq and you stop Maldives;’ ‘Stop Chhetri and you stop India.’

The two coaches, nevertheless, stayed quick to deny it. “Football is a team game,” both said unanimously. Even Ashfaq echoed the same sentiment. You could trust them to utter that.

India have been improving with every match and that’s what makes the average fan optimistic and the team management cautious. A slow start against Afghanistan provided the wake-up call against Bhutan and then a clinical performance against Sri Lanka, especially in the second half.

“This bunch from Maldives are more organised than the one we played in July in an International Friendly,” Medeira maintained. Team captain Climax Lawrence, sitting next, nodded.

Tried and tested vs the talented rookies stays Medeira’s dilemma. He has the luxury of a bench strength where he can afford to keep Steven Dias, Lalrindika Ralte and Jewel Raja out of the Starting XI. And now that Sameer Naik is available for selection, the surplus of choices has given him an headache – a pleasant one for a change.

Urbanyi insisted history doesn’t matter anymore in SAFF Championships. “It will all become clear once it kicks-off,” he added.

The schedule stays the same for every team. But somewhere down the line, Maldives go into the semifinal with a distinct advantage – an additional day of rest. More rest for players; more time for players to recover from their knocks. The average Indian fan would only hope the extra 24 hours won’t turn out to be decisive.

The kick-off is at 15.00 IST (10.30 CET / 9.30 GMT).

(AIFF Press Release / Written by Nilanjan Datta)