The Indian National Football Team kick off their SAFF Championship campaign against Bangladesh on Monday afternoon in the National Stadium in Male. The Blue Tigers, who are the record seven-time winners of the competition, lost the 2018 final to the Maldives. The 2003 champions Bangladesh, beat Sri Lanka 1-0 in their opening fixture, courtesy of a well-taken penalty by Topu Barman.
The Indian Team’s preparations
The Indian team landed in the Maldives on 28th September and was joined by Head Coach Igor Stimac there. Players from ATK Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC are familiar with the conditions in the stadium and the country, having played the group stage games of the AFC Cup in Male.
India was last seen in competitive action when they played Nepal in two friendlies in the city of Kathmandu. The first game ended in a 1-1 stalemate and the second in a 2-1 victory in favor of the Blue Tigers.
The SAFF Championship is much more competitive than it was before, says goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, a member of the victorious 2015 team. “Teams have vastly improved from the last time we played them. Teams have become more organized, and they know how to play according to the other team’s weaknesses. You cannot take any team lightly anymore.”, he opined.
Bangladesh played confident football against Sri Lanka in their opening encounter, registering 20 shots and dominating the possession. The Bangladeshi players are fresh off the recently concluded Bangladesh Premier Football League and have been in frequent action which can be an important factor in their game.
Key Indian Players
1) Anirudh Thapa
The man from Dehradun was one of India’s biggest takeaways from the two friendlies against Nepal, putting on quality performances in both games. Thapa’s agility, control over the ball, and interceptions will be very crucial against a Bangladesh side that will not sit in a low block and will take the game to the opposition. In a game like this, the team that wins the midfield battle is more likely to win the tie and India will be relying on the 23-year-old to dominate proceedings in the middle of the park.
2) Chinglensana Singh
Quickly establishing himself as one of India’s most trusted defenders, ‘Sana’ Singh will have to play a leading role at the back in the absence of talismanic defender Sandesh Jhingan, who is in the process of recovery with his Croatian club HNK Šibenik. Sana will be paired with one of Pritam Kotal, Rahul Bheke, or Subhasish Bose, all of whom are natural fullbacks, bringing added responsibility to his presence. Sana was not his usual self in the games against Nepal where he made poor judgments in front of goal. He will look to brush off the disappointments as he faces tougher and hungrier oppositions in the Championship.
3) Sunil Chhetri
Captain, Leader, Legend. At 37, arguably the greatest footballer to play for India is still as good as he ever was. His minutes are numbered, however, as he is generally replaced around the hour-mark, to keep him fresh for the next encounter. With an incredible presence on the pitch, the two-time winner of the tournament will look to inspire his nation to yet another trophy, after falling short in 2018.
Key Bangladeshi Players
1) Topu Barman
Topu Barman is the leader at the back for his nation and is no stranger to facing Indian attackers, having played against Sunil Chhetri and Manvir Singh in the group stage of the AFC Cup in the same stadium. He is also on penalty duty, scoring his team’s only goal in their win over Sri Lanka. His tackles and ability to carry the ball forward will come in handy against an Indian side who will be expected to press high.
2) Jamal Bhuyan
The captain of his nation, Jamal Bhuyan has over 50 caps for the national team. A holding midfielder, Bhuyan’s duty will be to stop Brandon Fernandes from creating chances for the likes of Chhetri and Manvir. Extremely physical and unafraid to dive into tackles, Bhuyan’s courage and compactness will be key for his country’s fate.
3) Sumon Reza
Sumon Reza will lead the line for Bangladesh up front. The Sheikh Russell FC striker failed to capitalize on his chances against Sri Lanka but will need to be more surgical in execution against India if they want to claim the very important 3 points. He is the most potent weapon in Bangladesh’s arsenal.
India – Gurpreet Singh Sandhu (GK), Seriton Fernandes, Pritam Kotal, Chinglensana Singh, Subhasish Bose, Lalengmawia Ralte, Anirudh Thapa, Brandon Fernandes, Farukh Chowdhary, Liston Colaco, Sunil Chhetri (C)
Bangladesh – Rahman Zico (GK), Bishwanath Ghosh, Topu Barman, Tariq Qazi, Yeasin Arafat, Jamal Bhuyan (C), Sohel Rana, Mohammad Ibrahim, Rakib Hossain, Biplu Ahmed, Sumon Reza
Head to head
India has played their neighbors on 30 different occasions, winning 16 and drawing 12. Bangladesh has won 2 encounters. The two sides last met in June with a brace from Chhetri winning the game for the Blue Tigers.
The match promises to be a very closely contested affair. Óscar Bruzón, the Head Coach of Bangladesh is familiar with the Indian players owing to his time spent in Mumbai. The Bangladeshi players are also familiar with the conditions as many of them were part of Bashundhara Kings’ AFC Cup campaign.
Set pieces will play a crucial factor in the game. A highly physical team awaits India in what could be their hardest game in the tournament till the final. A draw looks like a very possible outcome unless an early goal increases the intensity of the match.
Venue – National Stadium, Male, the Maldives
Time – 16:30 IST
Telecast – Eurosport
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