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SAFF Championship: India eye ninth title

SAFF Championship

NEW DELHI, July 3: Defending champions India on Tuesday will aim to maintain their impressive track record and secure their ninth title as they face a formidable Kuwait in the SAFF Championship final.
India faced a tough challenge in the semifinals against Lebanon, and the match went into a penalty shootout, which India won 4-2. Similarly, Kuwait had to rely on extra time to secure a narrow 1-0 victory over Bangladesh.
Interestingly, this will be the second encounter between India and Kuwait in the tournament. In their previous clash, they played to a contentious 1-1 draw in Group A.
With the advantage of playing in front of a passionate home crowd at the Kanteerava Stadium, India may hold a slight edge. However, there is a concern about their fatigue, having endured back-to-back demanding matches.
Addressing these concerns, India’s assistant coach Mahesh Gawli sought to alleviate any worries.
“I’d like to say that if you get one week, you can’t do anything. But when you get one month or more you work more on fitness,” said Gawli.
“I think we had almost 50 days. Our strength and conditioning coach, Luka Radman, has done a wonderful job. We have seen our players playing without injuries, and there have been no cramps as well.”
In the final, India will also be boosted by the return of key defender Sandesh Jhingan. He had missed the semifinal against Lebanon owing to two accumulated yellow cards against Pakistan and Kuwait.
Anwar Ali had replaced Jhingan in the line-up against Lebanon in the semifinals, and he did an excellent job in thwarting Lebanese advances.
Head coach Igor Stimac will be absent from the India dug out in this match as well after he was slapped with two-match ban by the SAFF disciplinary committee.
Stimac had received his second red card of the tournament during the match against Kuwait. Earlier, he was slapped with a red card in India’s tournament opener against Pakistan.
However, India, under the talismanic Sunil Chhetri, had shown a streak of determination to rise above obstacles.
After scoring in three successive matches in the group stage, Chhetri was not able to find the back of the net in the semifinals against Lebanon. Of course, he converted a penalty in the shootout, but the striker would like to make a heftier contribution in the summit clash.
India would also hope that Sahal Abdul Samad, Mahesh Singh and Udanta Singh will continue to be energetic on the field, feeding Chhetri with those dreaded crosses.
Mahesh, who is usually deployed as a winger, was fielded behind Chhetri against Lebanon to add more support to the skipper. Gawli indicated a continuation of that strategy in the final as well.
“We wanted him to play there (in wings) and feed the wingers and Sunil Chhetri. He was doing that. We kept Ashique (Kuruniyan) on the left because of the physicality, and he was doing well. He was running a lot. We did not want to change that,” Gawli said.
But the Indians know that Kuwait are a battle-hardened side, and nothing less than their best would suffice.
(ToI With inputs from PTI)

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