Dashrath Stadium, Kathmandu
Kick off 3:15 IST
Defending champions India and hosts Nepal are all set to square off against each other in their last group game of the 2013 SAFF Championship at Kathmandu, with all four teams in Group A in contention for the two semi-final spots. With both sides having played two games each so far, India and Nepal have accumulated 4 points from their campaign. Nepal kicked off the tournament on Saturday with a 2-0 win over Bangladesh, and followed it up with a 1-1 draw against Pakistan. The Gorkhalis, backed by thousands of their fans, have been very impressive in both the games, and only a brilliant performance from the Pakistani custodian, Yousuf Butt, prevented them from getting a win against the Shahins. India, on the other hand, have been well below par during both their outings, with an abysmal attack proving to be a major cause of concern for coach Koevermans.
The game against Bangladesh, on Tuesday, proved to be a major embarrassment for Indian fans and players. After narrowly escaping with 3 points against Pakistan on Sunday, courtesy of a comical mishap in the Pakistani defence, the blue tigers were expected to improve on their last showing, and win comfortably against Bangladesh. However, what eventually panned out in the 90 minutes against the Bengal Tigers, is something the Indian fans would like to forget soon. Wim Koevermans made some rather questionable selections in his starting line-up, with Nallapan Mohanraj, who had a horror show against Pakistan, again starting ahead of Syed Rahim Nabi, while forward Jeje Lalpaekhlua was again pushed wide to the flanks. Indian started the game well, and were the dominant side in the first half. However, like in the game against the Shahins, the blue tigers looked toothless upfront, and failed to convert numerous chances that came their way. In the second half, the Indian team put up an outrageously poor showing that, perhaps, will haunt Indian fans for a long time. After a decent first few minutes, the blue tigers started fading away from the game, and Bangladesh slowly started creating a few chances. Mohanraj cut a sorry figure, while midfielder Lenny Rodrigues had a horrendous time, failing to make simple passes and losing possession on numerous occasions. What was very disturbing to watch, was the performance of captain Sunil Chhetri. The new Bengaluru FC recruit wasted a handful of chances, just like he did against Pakistan, and made India’s task harder as the clock ticked away. Jeje being played out of position didn’t help, while Jewel Sheikh Raja had little involvement in the game. Mehtab was perhaps one of the better players, but the East Bengal midfielder was also guilty of losing possession on a few occasions, and failed to combine well with Lenny. It was only after Bangladesh punished the Indians with a goal in the 80th minute, that the blue tigers finally started getting back into the game. It eventually took a brilliantly taken freekick by Sunil Chhetri to rescue India a point in the 5th minute of injury time.
The performance against Bangladesh may not mean the end of the world for the Indian side, but definitely is a disturbing sign of what may lie ahead for the team in the tournament. Wim Koevermans’ tactics and selections have come under the scanner in recent times, and failure to reach the semis might end up costing him his job. Ahead of the crucial game against Nepal, the Dutchman would probably consider making a few changes to the team, taking into mind the poor forms of many of his players. Mohanraj might make way for the experienced Syed Rahim Nabi, while Arata Izumi, Alwyn George or Dawson Fernandes can be called on to add more spark to the Indian attack. Mehtab Hossain has a huge role to play in orchestrating India’s attack from the centre of the field, while Lenny Rodrigues, despite his horrendous form, looks set to start. Sunil Chhetri will once again have the onus of leading India’s attack, and Indian fans would be hoping for a much improved showing from their captain. Francis Fernandes had a good game against Pakistan, and was effective in the first half against Bangladesh, which leaves his starting position in little danger. Gouramangi Moirangthem and Arnab Mondal will form India’s central defence, while Nirmal Chettri looks set to start at right-back. Wim Koevermans must, however, work out where to play Jeje Lalpekhlua, if he is to get the best out of the Mizo forward.
Probable Indian starting XI : Subrata Paul; Nirmal Chettri, Gouramangi Singh, Arnab Mondal, Syed Rahim Nabi; Francis Fernandes, Mehtab Hossain, Lenny Rodriguez, Arata Izumi; Jeje Lalpekhlua, Sunil Chettri
Key players: Sunil Chhetri, Mehtab Hossain
Nepal had a flying start to their SAFF Cup campaign, when they defeated Bangladesh 2-0 at the Dashrath Rangasala, courtesy of a goal each from strikers Anil Gurung and Bharat Khawas. In the second game, the Gorkhalis trailed the Pak Shahins for most of the game, and had to wait for a late equalizer from 15-year old Bimal Magar to take home a point. The Nepalese side currently sits on top of the Group A table, on goal difference.
The hosts will depend on Rohit Chand to pull the strings from the midfield, while former Shillong Lajong forward Anil Gurung, who is currently nursing a thigh injury, and Bharat Khawas look set to lead the attack. Winger Jagjeet Shrestha failed to start the game against Pakistan due to a heel injury, and looks doubtful once again. The services of Jumanu Rai may be called upon once again to cover for Shrestha, while Sandip Rai and Sagar Thapa will form the Nepalese backline. Despite the injury problems, the Gorkhalis will be buoyed by the brilliant home support, and will start the game as favorites, based on current form.
Probable Nepalese starting XI: Kiran Chemjong; Rabin Shrestha, Sagar Thapa, Sandip Rai, Biraj Maharjan; Bhola Silwal, Raju Tamang, Rohit Chand, Jumanu Rai; Bharat Khawas, Anil Gurung
Key players: Rohit Chand, Bharat Khawas
Prediction: With India struggling in both their games, and Nepal playing in front of a home crowd, the Gorkhalis have the upper hand going into the crucial group stage encounter in Kathmandu. However, injuries to influential players Jagjeet Shrestha and Anil Gurung may peg back the team in its quest for a victory. The Indian midfield was non-functional in the second half against Bangladesh, while the attack was devoid of any sharpness. The onus is on Wim Koevermans to make the necessary changes to his side to ensure safe passage to the semis. Taking into mind both the sides’ problems, TheHardTackle predicts a scored draw between India and Nepal.