Just three days after winning the Hero Intercontinental Cup, the Indian senior men’s team will begin their SAFF Championship 2023 campaign against Pakistan in Group A at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru, on Wednesday, June 21, 2023 at 7:30 pm IST.
The other two teams from Group A, Nepal and Kuwait will clash in the opening match of the tournament at 3:30 pm IST. Group B, consisting of Lebanon, Bangladesh, Maldives and Bhutan, is set to begin on June 22.
Record eight-time champions India are out to defend the title they won in the Maldives in 2021 after beating Nepal 3-0 in the final. The SAFF Championship is being held in India for the fourth time, and they have won the trophy on each of the last three occasions as hosts (1999, 2011 and 2015).
With the inclusion of guest teams, Kuwait and Lebanon, the SAFF Championship is set to feature eight teams for the first time since 2013. Blue Tigers head coach Igor Stimac extended his warm welcome to both West Asian guests at the pre-tournament press conference.
“I hope Kuwait and Lebanon feel welcome in every sense here in this beautiful city of Bengaluru. This SAFF Championship is going to be very competitive. Our group is special (Pakistan, Nepal and Kuwait), and every game will be different. The crowd will enjoy good football, and let’s hope for plenty of goals,” said Stimac.
India bagged a convincing 2-0 win over Lebanon in the Hero Intercontinental Cup Final on Sunday evening. Stimac stated that although his side are content with how they’ve done, there’s no time to dwell on that result or even overvalue the success in Bhubaneswar.
“The mood in the camp is brilliant, obviously, after winning the Intercontinental Cup. We enjoyed each and every second in Odisha and are happy with our performance. But the second step, which is the difficult one, is to repeat it from game to game. Let’s not be misled by the great performance against Lebanon, as every day is a new challenge. Keeping consistency is very important for us,” said the Croatian.
Moving from the heat and humidity of Bhubaneswar to the rain and coolness of Bengaluru is a welcome change for Stimac. “It’s going to be different here – new tournament, new approach, new teams, new conditions. It’s beautiful weather to play football,” he smiled. “Obviously, we’ll approach each game separately. We’re well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of our opponents, so we’ll work on it,” he added.
As far as their first opponents Pakistan are concerned, Stimac was all praise for the 195-ranked side despite them losing all three of their games in the Four Nations Cup in Mauritius last week.
“Let’s not speak about the rankings here. Pakistan were better than Kenya (in their 0-1 loss) away from home. They created better chances and were more aggressive. Yes, they defended deep, but they have six to seven players who were developed abroad,” he said.
Pakistan also went down 0-3 to Mauritius and 1-3 to Djibouti, but “they have certain qualities which you have to respect,” according to Stimac. The last time India faced Pakistan was in the semi-final of the 2018 SAFF Championship in Bangladesh, where the Blue Tigers emerged as 3-1 victors thanks to a brace from Manvir Singh and a goal from Sumeet Passi.
Coached by Shahzad Anwar, Pakistan are yet to arrive in Bengaluru for Wednesday’s clash, but Stimac feels it won’t be a disadvantage for them as they have racked up a fair bit of match practice in the past week. “They’ve played three games in the last ten days, so they are in a good competitive mood,” he said.
Report- Pratyusha Mukherjee