SAFF Championship: SAFF Championship
By Mustaq Sydeen in Maldives
India are seeking their eighth SAFF success when they take on first-time finalists Nepal in the SAFF Championship scheduled to kick off today at National Stadium, Maldives. After two disheartening draws, India revived their 2021 campaign with back-toback wins against Nepal and defending champions Maldives to book their slot in the final. The draws against lower-ranked Bangladesh and Sri Lanka left India fighting for survival in the five-team tournament.
But skipper Chhetri once again turned saviour for Igor Stimac’s men, scoring the lone goal in the must-win match against Nepal. It was followed by a brace in their 3-1 win against hosts Maldives in the virtual semi-final. In the process, Chhetri, 37, became the third most-prolific scorer among active footballers with 79 goals. He’s only behind two of the greatest players, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo (115) and Argentina’s Lionel Messi (80). In fact, Chhetri can overtake six-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi with a brace against Nepal.
India have never failed to appear in the final, except the 2003 edition in Bangladesh. And with a win against Nepal on Saturday, India can actually mend some broken hearts. For Nepal, it will be a new experience. They have never played in a final. Their best run in the tournament was in the inaugural edition (1993) when the Gorkhalis finished third in the four-team competition.
They have since reached the last-four stage in 1999, 2011, 2013 and 2018. Nepal have so far scored six goals in the tournament, with their star striker Anjan Bista contributing two. Besides the 23-year-old forward, Nepal have capable players in Suman Lama, Ayush Ghalan and Manish Dangi. India lead the head-to-head record 15-2 in the previous 22 meetings. Nepal last defeated India (2-1) in a SAFF match in 2013. Their first win was in the 1993 SAF Games in Dhaka, 4-3 on penalties.