SAFF Championship: India eye semi-final berth, face Nepal in Group A match (preview)


Bengaluru, June 23 (IANS) After a resounding success over Pakistan in their SAFF Championship opener, the Indian senior men’s team face Nepal in their second Group A match at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium here, with an aim to secure the semi-final berth on Saturday.

A victory for India, coupled with a win or a draw for Kuwait against Pakistan, will see the Blue Tigers qualify for the semi-final with one group-stage match to spare.

Sunil Chhetri’s hat-trick and a late strike from Udanta Singh powered India to a 4-0 victory on a rain-lashed Wednesday, which the Blue Tigers have already moved on from, according to head coach Igor Stimac.

“I’m very happy with how we responded against Pakistan. I’m also happy that we’ve already forgotten about that match and are working on the next one,” said Stimac.

“With all due respect to every team participating here, we are only thinking about ourselves,” he added.

The Croatian was sent off in the first-half added time for interrupting a quick throw-in from Pakistan, an act he doesn’t regret and only did for the good of the team.

“Whatever decision I made wasn’t in the heat of the moment but with a cool head and knowing that there would be a sanction after it. I’m there to protect my boys and my team. It’s better I get the cards than them,” he said.

Under Stimac, India have faced Nepal four times (three wins and a draw), with the last meeting coming in the 2021 SAFF Championship Final in Male. India claimed their record-extending eighth title after a convincing 3-0 win thanks to goals from Sunil Chhetri, Suresh Singh Wangjam and Sahal Abdul Samad.

Despite India knowing Nepal very well and boasting a great record against them, Stimac believes they are a much-changed side now under new head coach Vincenzo Alberto Annese, who led Gokulam Kerala to back-to-back I-League titles between in 2021 and 2022.

“Nepal changed their coach a few months ago. He is trying to bring and implement a new philosophy to their game. But as I said, we’re not thinking about them. Our only concern is us and where we can improve. We need to maintain the good momentum as far as possible,” Stimac stated.

Nepal went down 1-3 to Kuwait in their first game, with Anjan Bista, who played for Mumbai Kenkre in the I-League last season, scoring the consolation goal for Annese’s side.

“Kuwait was a great opponent. We have many inexperienced players in this competition, and haven’t had much time to prepare. However, we did create many chances, especially in the second half,” said Annese.

For 174-ranked Nepal, a defeat will see them eliminated should Pakistan fail to beat Kuwait. But Annese is only focused on the mountain to climb against the hosts in the evening.

“We will face an India side which hasn’t conceded in their last seven games. They have amazing players who play in an amazing league like the ISL. I respect them a lot, and it will be tough for us, but we’ll go out with character. We will be up against 20 thousand people tomorrow. We need to give more than 100 per cent. It’s a great opportunity, an amazing challenge,” said the Italian.



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