India U-23 take on defending champions the Maldives in the SAFF Cup final on Sunday, knowing that victory at the Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka would go a long way in helping them graduate to the next level.
The Maldives have entered the final with an all-win record. India, playing without six regulars, lost 0-2 to them in the group league stage.
“On the basis of performance, you can say the best teams have survived. But what you have done earlier will count for nothing so tomorrow, really, is the day. The boys are mentally prepared, the spirit is good and that gives me confidence,” India coach Sukhwinder Singh told HT from Dhaka on Saturday.
“If we can repeat our performance against Bangladesh with a few modifications that we must make against the Maldives, we should have a good match. We have to try and stop them from getting into their strides. Yes, they (the Maldives) have some good players but if we can deny them freedom, no one’s unstoppable,” he said.
Striker Balwant Singh’s return to the starting line-up, replacing Jeje Lalpekhlua, is likely to be the only change to the starting XI against Bangladesh in the semis on Friday. Under Sukhwinder and with Bhaichung Bhutia as captain, India won the ’99 SAFF Cup in Goa. They also won in ’05 in Karachi but lost 0-1 in the final to the Maldives in ’07. This will be the third meeting between the teams in the final.
Likely India line-up: Arindam Bhattacharya; Denzel Franco, Rowilson Rodrigues, D. Ravanan, Robert Lalthlamuana; Joaquim Abranches, Jewel Raja, Baldeep, Jibon Singh; Sushil Kumar, Balwant Singh.
Live on ESPN: 5.30 pm.