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SAFF Championship: India will face Maldives in must-win match, stare at worst show since 2003

SAFF Championship: India will face Maldives in must-win match, stare at worst show since 2003

Still unbeaten but still extremely disappointing, beleaguered India host Maldives in their last round-robin of the SAFF Champions League here on Wednesday, well aware that nothing short of a win will save them from elimination.

A draw or a loss will send India out of reckoning for the final of the regional tournament and that will be the worst result for India in recent memory, which could also raise questions about head coach Igor Stimac’s continuation at the helm of affairs.

The worst performance for seven-time champions India before this edition was the third-place finish in 2003 and the country has either won or finished runners-up in 11 previous editions.

All the four top sides in the five-team tournament remain in contention for the 16 October final.

With five points from two draws and one win, India are currently at third place below Maldives (six points from three matches) and Nepal (six points from three matches). Nepal play Bangladesh (fourth place with four points) in an earlier match on Wednesday.

Two-time and defending champions Maldives have never been easy opponents for India in the history of this regional tournament though the island country sits 51 ranking points below India in FIFA chart at 158th.

The side led by veteran Ali Ashfaq, one of the best strikers in the region, have regrouped themselves after losing their opening match against Nepal, beating Bangladesh 2-0 and Sri Lanka 1-0.

Just like India captain Sunil Chhetri, the 36-year-old Ashfaq has carried Maldives football on his shoulders for a long time and he has scored two of his side’s three goals in this tournament. He will, no doubt, be the man India will have to be wary about.

India felt the absence of experienced Sandesh Jhingan in deep defence as they could not defend a 1-0 lead against 10-man Bangladesh who scored a late equaliser despite numerical inferiority.

In the second match against 205th-ranked Sri Lanka, Indian forwards, including Chhetri, had an off day as they could not create enough chances and also failed to finish whatever few scoring opportunities they had for a 0-0 draw.

Chhetri came to the rescue of the team once again against Nepal, scoring the decisive goal to equal the legendary Pele in the previous match, but the question is how long the country will keep relying on a 37-year-old warhorse to find the opposition net.

Nippy winger Udanta Singh has been inconsistent though he has shown flashes of his abilities at the flanks while Seriton Fernandes in defence and Brandon Fernandes in the midfield have done reasonably well.

Understandably, Stimac has rued the inability of his forwards to convert the scoring chances.

“We need to improve our scoring from the chances which we are creating,” he said.

“It is simple, if we do that, games become very easy. Otherwise you need to suffer till the end, or even beyond the end,” he added, still believing that his side can reach the final.

With the football crazy Maldivians likely to play the role of 12th player on Wednesday, the onus is on Stimac and his men to avert the country’s worst football ignominy in a long time.

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