New Delhi: Seeking to win their first tournament post the Bhaichung Bhutia era, the in-form Sunil Chhetri will be the cynosure of all eyes as India prepare to take on surprise package Afghanistan in the final of the SAFF Championship on Sunday.
While five-time defending champions India will look to extend their domination in the regional tournament, Afghanistan will be out to prove that their successful run to the title clash was not a flash in the pan.
India were undoubtedly the better of the two sides in their last-four clash with Maldives and deserved the 3-1 verdict, while the Afghans will be coming off an ill-tempered semifinal match against Nepal.
Afghanistan managed to outslug the opposition 1-0 after the match went into extra time, but it could have easily gone Nepal`s way had it not been for poor finishing.
Moments after the humdinger against Nepal, coach Yousef Kargar said he has a plan up his sleeve, but to unsettle India, his two poachers, Belal Arezou and Senjar Ahmadi, will have to be at their striking best.
With six goals, Arezou is the tournament`s leading scorer along with Chhetri. And the battle between Chhetri and Arezou will certainly form a fascinating sub plot at the beautiful Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in New Delhi.
The pint-sized dynamo from Delhi came out triumphant against Ali Ashfaq`s Maldives yesterday scoring twice, and he will now look to recreate the magic he weaved in the AFC Challenge Cup final some three and a half years ago when his hat-trick took India to the Asian Cup after a gap of 24 years.
The only difference this time will be the venue – that AFC Challenge title clash, which rounded off a superb English August for India, was played at the Ambedkar Stadium, also known as the national team`s fortress.
With Jawaharlal Nehru stadium set to host the bulk of international matches in the next couple of years, Savio Medeira`s boys would not mind a title win in their first tournament at the multi-discipline stadium.
India were slow to start with as they were held to a 1-1 draw by the Afghans in their opening match, prompting many to believe that the team was playing in the wrong stadium. But as the tournament progressed, the likes of Clifford Miranda, Syed Rahim Nabi and skipper Climax Lawrence, so crucial to the team`s fortunes, got their act together.
The stalemate with Afghanistan was followed by a 5-0 rout of Bhutan. Then came another comprehensive victory, a 3-0 rout of Sri Lanka that set up the team`s much-anticipated semifinal date with traditional rival Maldives, which eventually proved to be a damp squib as India won it easy.
In their march to the final, not just Chhetri and his strike partner Jeje Lalpekhuala but almost every member of the side -- be it midfielder Rocus Lamare or defender Gouramangi Singh or, for that matter, winger Anthony Pereira – gave their coach what he wanted.
What must have also helped the side was Medeira`s restrained approach.
While the others may have seemed a bit arrogant, Medeira always played it safe, off the field, and it seems to have paid dividends.
The Goan is a cool customer who lets his boys do all the talking on a football turf.
After a dreadful start to the year in the Asian Cup in Doha, where the Indians were mauled by their superior opponents from South Korea, Australia and Bahrain, the SAFF gives them an opportunity to end it on a high.
As far as the Afghans are concerned, they are happy to have made it to the title clash for the first time, but not content.