Chhetri-less India face tough Maldives test in SAFF semis
The six-time champions have always been overwhelming favourites in the South Asian region but the current side coached by Wim Koevermans has performed way below par in the tournament so far having won by a solitary goal against Pakistan, followed by a
Defending champions India will start as underdogs when they take on an inspired Maldives in the second semi-final of the SAFF Football Championship here on Monday.
The six-time champions have always been overwhelming favourites in the South Asian region but the current side coached by Wim Koevermans has performed way below par in the tournament so far having won by a solitary goal against Pakistan, followed by a 1-1 draw against Bangladesh and a humiliating 1-2 defeat to Nepal in their final group league encounter.
If their poor show wasn't enough, the absence of skipper Sunil Chhetri due to double booking means that the striking options are even more limited for the Dutch coach who will be forced to field Robin Singh from the start with a horribly out-of-touch Jeje Lalpeklhua.
Whether Koevermans sticks to his one striker formula of playing with a 4-5-1 formation or he changes to a more familiar 4-4-2 by pushing Robin alongside Jeje can decide the course of the match.
It will probably be the first time that Maldives are the form team with their skipper Ali Ashfaq having pumping in 10 goals in two matches, including a double hat-trick against Sri Lanka and four against Bhutan.
Compared to Maldives, India have scored three goals in three matches including an one own-goal by Pakistan skipper Samar Ishaq, while Chhetri's precision free-kick against Bangladesh and Nabi's acrobatic side-volley versus Nepal have both come during the dying moments of the respective matches.
If the Indians are in the semi-final, it was more to do with group league equations that saw both Pakistan and Bangladesh bow out of the tournament. But if India possess the proverbial Champions Luck, there is every possibility that they might pull through when it matters the most.
Gourmangi Singh is expected to wear the captain's arm-band in Chhetri's absence by virtue of earning the most number of international caps (84) in the current side.
It will be interesting how he can guide an inexperienced stopper Arnab Mondal, who has found it extremely difficult to replicate his club performance.
Mondal has made some mistakes at the heart of the defence and the onus will be on senior-pro Gourmangi to motivate the youngster.
While the performance of the forward line is definitely a cause for concern for the Indian team, the performance of the midfield hasn't been upto the mark either.
The vastly experienced Mehtab Hossain and the immensely talented Lenny Rodrigues has been shadow of what they were during last year's victorious Nehru Cup campaign in front of home crowd.
The defence splitting passes are nowhere to be found and Nabi on the left flank also didn't do much except scoring that spectacular goal in a losing cause.
The find of the tournament has certainly been young Francis Fernandes who has shown a lot of mobility down wide right but his defensive partner Nirmal Chhetri's speed has been a problem.
Time and again, one saw Nirmal gasping for breath trying to get back to his position after an overlap. It was exposed thoroughly when Nepal scored their second goal against India as the opposition left-winger beat the Indian right back with sheer speed.
The lack of training time has also made matters worse as the players haven't been able to form proper combination as SAFF is being played at a time when Indian football season is yet to kick-off.
Apart from an away-friendly against Tajikistan which also didn't have a full-strength squad, the Indians haven't played a lot of competitive football coming from a two-month break.