New Delhi: India will look to continue their winning ways when they take on South Asian rivals Maldives in the Nehru Cup football tournament here on Saturday.
Both teams won their opening matches in the tournament. While India edged out Syria in rain marred tournament opener, the Maldives gave a very good account of themselves dispatching Nepal with relative ease.
India, playing a new formation and under new coach Wim Koevermans, struggled initially before settling down against Syria.
Portugal-return striker Sunil Chhetri was on the mark once again continuing his love affair in the tournament while Francisco Fernandes blossomed in his role as a withdrawal forward. The Salgaocar midfielder supported Chettri well and with India playing with a single man upfront, much will depend on the young Fernandes for creating chances.
In the 2007 and 2009 editions, Chettri had a haul of five goals with only Bhaichung Bhutia having a better return in the history of the tournament. With Bhutia now retired, along with senior players like Climax Lawrence and Mahesh Gawli, the onus is now on Chettri as India chase a hat-trick of Nehru Cup wins.
The Maldives have always troubled India in the past. The most memorable being India's 0-1 loss in 2008 SAFF Cup final. But what will inspire the Indian team will be their 3-1 win over the Maldives in the semi-final of the 2011 SAFF Cup at the same venue.
The Maldives have the speed and the precision and that would be a challenge for India's new look defence and mid-field.
Against Syria, India were able to make the best use of the left-flank where the seasoned Clifford Miranda put up a sterling performance. But from the other flank Sanju Pradhan couldn't provide much support. For India to do well against bugbear Maldives they have to make use of both flanks.
But India's problems lay in defence. The two-time defending champions were put in trouble multiple times with the lob passes. Raju Gaikwad was especially loose as the centre-back being caught out more than once.
Wing-back Syed Rahim Nabi, who played an important role in India's SAFF Cup victory here, also had bad day in the opening game. Nabi is the player who could change the course of the match with his quick runs down the flank.
Koevermans will have to organise his defence well with the Maldives strike force looking as solid as ever.
The island nation will once again rely on the trickery and speed of captain Ali Ashfaq. He got ample support from his midfield trio of Umair Mohamed, Ali Ashadh and Abdulla Asadhulla, who linked up beautifully with one another.
"We have shown the video of the last match to the boys. There are some aspects where we need to improve. We are taking it game by game. I was always confident of the quality of the team. After the first match, I am more confident. We had three weeks of training and played two friendlies, but the first game is always a difficult one," said Koevermans.
"Nehru Cup is a tournament which we would like to win. We are also seeing this as a preparation for the AFC qualifiers. It's always challenging for the players to adapt to a different style of play. Maldives looks in good shape. Their No. 7 (Ali Ashfaq) is really impressive," he added.
India and the Maldives will be playing against each other for the first time in the tournament's history.