Defending Champions India Locks Horns With Neighbour.
SAFF CHAMPIONSHIP: The Indian team is training in Bengaluru. Don't underestimate jet-lagged Pakistan, says Stimac.
Fresh after the resounding success at the Intercontinental Cup in Bhubaneswar, India will begin its quest for a second title in less than a month when it takes on Pakistan in the SAFF Championship opener here on Wednesday. India, the defending champion and eight-time winner, will be returning to the Sree Kanteerava Stadium after more than five and a half years. The last match was in October 2017 against Macau, a 4-1 win which sealed India's spot in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
When India takes the field this time, Asian Cup will once again be in focus, for the SAFF event will form an important competition in the lead-up to the 2023 edition. On paper, the Pakistan tie is winnable. India's South Asian neighbour is ranked 195,94 places below India, and lost all three matches against Kenya, host Mauritius and Djibouti at the recently held four-nation tournament. It is also set to start the match with hardly any practice, for it would have arrived in Bengaluru only in the wee hours of Wednesday because of a delay in visa approval.
There is, however, some interest in Easah Suliman, a former England U-20 captain, who is now playing for Pakistan. India head coach Igor Stimac mentioned the 25-year-old fleetingly on Tuesday and said that Pakistan could well be the "surprise of the tournament". " I watched the game Pakistan played against Kenya, which is No. 102,and Pakistan were the better side", Stimac said. "They have six or seven players who have developed abroad. There are two players playing in England, one in Denmark in the first tier. So, let's not speak about rankings.
Sunil Chhetri & Co. will no doubt be bolstered by crowd support. A match against Pakistan, regardless of the sport, needs no invitation, and authorities said more than 10,000 tickets had already been sold. It's a relief that the geopolitical tensions that plague cricketing ties between the countries haven't quite percolated to football and the hope is for fans to experience some riveting action. The cooler climate of the Garden City, after the searing heat of Bhubaneswar, will be a welcome relief for India. The only worry will be the lack of proper preparation as the team will be forced to train on artificial turf.
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