New Delhi: Five times champions India will have to be at their attacking best against a fast-improving Afghanistan in the SAFF Cup football final if they have to retain the title at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium here on Sunday.
Both teams know exactly what to expect and do, having shared two goals in their opening pool game. In that match, India had a catching-up job to do after Afghanistan went up with an early goal.
India improved remarkably as the tournament progressed and played like champions in the semifinal against the Maldives, who had been India's nemesis in the regional championship. India lost two of their three matches against the Maldives, but Friday evening the title holders won comfortably 3-1.
Now India look favourites against a team playing the final for the first time. Afghanistan are a revelation with their speed and power and they have had a great run this year, winning six, losing three and drawing two of the 11 matches they have played. They gave a tough fight to 2010 World Cuppers North Korea before going down 0-2 in the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers.
India, too, can boast of playing in the Asian Cup after 27 years. Expectedly it was a disaster as the lowest-ranked team made a first-round exit, getting hammered by Australia, South Korea and Bahrain and conceding 13 goals.
The team has gone through a systemic overhaul and in the process its overseas coach Bob Houghton and the best-rated domestic coach Armando Colaco went out of favour and the long-standing favourite hero Bhaichung Bhutia called it a day. A victory here will be a step forward in rebuilding the side.
But it would not be an easy final for India. They depend heavily on the striking duo Sunil Chettri and Jeje Lalpeklua. Delhi boy Chettri is the leading goal-scorer of the tournament with six goals and has equalled I. M. Vijayan's record for most number of goals in the SAFF Cup set in 1997 in Kathmandu.
While Chettri has been performing consistently, finding the net in every match, Jeje has squandered some easy opportunities. The mid-field has gelled well with right-winger Clifford Miranda and left-back Syed Rahim Nabi combining to keep the ball upfield.
Nabi has been outstanding. The East Bengal defender has been flitting around as a tireless wing-back.
"I like to play in all positions. The freedom has helped me to score goals. The left-back is a position and it gives the team an extra option to attack," said Nabi.
Afghanistan coach Mohammad Yusuf Kargar was impressed with Nabi's performance and said that his boys have a plan to take care of the attacking defender.
"India have two good strikers. But they also have effective Nabi in the rear. We will take him on," said Kargar.
Kargar was concerned over his strikers Belal Arezou and Sanjar Ahmadi missing several chances in their 1-0 exciting semifinal win against Nepal. The winner came from their Norway-based striker Arezou in 102nd minute.
"The performance of the strikers against Nepal has been a big concern. They missed several chances and it didn't look good. Hopefully we will find a way out," he said.
Kargar said his team is determined to win that would be a gift for the strife-torn Afghanistan.
"Troubled by war and the recent Kabul blasts, our nation has been in a state of mourning. And we dedicate our recent performance to the people back home. Sunday, we will be playing for our pride, not for any reward," Kargar said.
The probable starting line-ups:
India: Karanjit Singh; Mahesh Gawli, Nirmal Chettri, Gouramangi Singh, Rocus Lamare; Anthony Pereira, Climax Lawrence, Clifford Miranda, Syed Nabi, Sunil Chhetri, Jeje Lalpelua.
Afghanistan:Hameedullah Yousufzari; Haroon Fakhrudin, Faisal safa, Djelaludin Sharityar and Moqadar Faizullah; Mohammed Esrafil, Yousef Mashriqi, Ahmed Arash Hatifle and Waheed Ahmad; Sanjar Ahmadi and Balal Arezo.
Kick-off: 6 p.m., Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, live on TV Ten Action+