Sunil Chhetri and Co Eye Winning Start

The SAFF Championship began on October 1 after getting delayed twice due to Covid-19 and the five participating nations are – India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and hosts Maldives. Pakistan and Bhutan are not a part of the tournament because the Pakistan federation is suspended by FIFA while Bhutan is reluctant to allow its players to travel.

Going into the tournament, India will be eyeing their eighth title. With seven triumphs, India is the most successful nation at the championship. India are the favourites to win the tournament, having won three of the last five editions.

In their last five matches, India have been held to draw by their neighbours thrice, one of them being a 1-1 stalemate in the FIFA 2022 World Cup qualifiers at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata on October 15, 2019. However, in their last fixtures, which was also in the World Cup qualifier, India beat Bangladesh 2-0.

Ahead of the match, Indian men’s football team head coach Igor Stimac said that “the first game is always the most difficult game” of any tournament.

“Bangladesh are a known opponent, but we respect them immensely. In fact, we respect each and every team playing out here, and they have an equal chance to win the tournament,” the coach said.

Team captain Sunil Chhetri stressed that the “message from our coaching staff and Head Coach is very clear”.

“It is more and more about how we play. We gotta make sure that we minimise our mistakes, and we have to make sure that in every game no matter what, we give 100 per cent. We cannot be complacent,” Sunil warned.

Stimac made no secret that he will be making the most of ATK Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC players having played in Maldives earlier in the AFC Cup. “We rely on Bengaluru FC and ATKMB players because not only they played here a few weeks back, but they started work with their respective clubs. And they had enough training sessions, and games in their legs. So their engines are good for such a tournament,” he expressed.

“We need to be careful as to how many minutes we give to each player corresponding to what they can do at the moment with regards to endurance capacities.”

Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who was part of the triumphant squad in 2015 added: “Teams have vastly improved from the last time we played them. Teams have become more organised, and they know how to play according to the other team’s weaknesses. You cannot take any team lightly anymore.”

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