Of the five finals coach Wim Koevermans broke this SAFF Championship into, India have played three and won one. They haven't managed to score in regulation time, rode a self-goal to victory against Pakistan and were easily bested by Nepal. That the defending champions are still in the competition
goes to show that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
India now play Monday's semifinal against Maldives without Sunil Chhetri, their captain who at 41 goals is two away from being the country's most successful goal scorer. Without Chhetri's wondrous free-kick against Bangladesh deep in second-half stoppage time, India would have failed to make the penultimate round of this eight-team south Asian competition for the first time since it started in 1993.
If they lose to Maldives, it would be the first time in 10 years that India haven't made the final. If ever, India need to pull together as a team this is it. Over the past two days, according to an official travelling with the squad, Chhetri, Subrata Paul and other senior players have tried to pep up this young team left dispirited by the 1-2 loss to Nepal.
With Syed Rahim Nabi recovering from a serious attack of cramps, it will have to be seen what changes Koevermans makes to the starting line-up in Chhetri's absence. If Nabi is fit, he could take Jeje Lalpekhlua's place as wide midfielder with the Dempo player being moved up the park. Alternately, Robin Singh or Allwyn George could replace Chhetri.
Maldives have scored a whopping 18 goals in two games, their veteran striker Ali Ashfaq getting 10 of them, but have also shown a tendency to lose shape when they don't have the ball. "They (Maldives) were not in the group of death. We are happy that we've had enough rest before the semifinal. The energy level of the boys has gone up," said Koevermans before training at the Police Headquarters ground on Sunday morning.
Ashfaq has been quoted as saying that having been part of the SAFF meet since 2005, this is the weakest India team he has seen. "We are not focusing on Ashfaq alone, we know we will be up against a good unit," said Paul.
Under Koevermans, India's best match so far perhaps was the victory against Cameroon in the final of the Nehru Cup. That was around a year ago and like in the SAFF Championship, the players had come off a break. Koevermans said the Nehru Cup "was a different proposition" but surely he wouldn't mind celebrating the first anniversary of that win with a befitting performance?
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