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India, Kuwait gear up for battle royale

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Bengaluru: The final of the SAFF Championship has been contested 13 times, with India winning the title on eight occasions, including the inaugural 1993 round-robin edition.

The Blue Tigers further stretched their streak of SAFF Championship final appearances to nine, and will aim to defend their title from two years ago when they take on Kuwait for the trophy at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium here on Tuesday.

In what has been the most competitive and dynamic SAFF Championship of all time, India saw off Lebanon 4-2 on penalties after two goalless hours in Saturday’s semi-final. The other guest side Kuwait edged Bangladesh 1-0 after extra time in the other last-four clash to set up a date with the region’s eternal heavyweights in the final.

Both teams met in the group stage, producing a thrilling but anticlimactic 1-1 draw from India’s point of view, as an injury-time own goal snatched victory and the Group A top spot away from them. Head coach Igor Stimac was sent off in the closing stages of that heated encounter and subsequently received a two-match ban, which means assistant coach Mahesh Gawali will take his place on the touchline as he did in the semi-final, the AIFF sources on Monday said.

“It was a tense affair last time out against Kuwait, and also Lebanon. We’ve spoken to the boys to be calm and cool and direct all the focus on winning the final. It will be a totally different game. We have a positive feeling, and hope we can continue how we’ve been doing so far,” said Gawali at the pre-match press conference.

Gawali lifted the SAFF Championship trophy twice as a player – first in 2005, in Karachi, and then in 2011 in New Delhi. But winning it as a coach will be a remarkable feat for the former central defender, especially with the quality of the teams in this edition.

“This one is going to be more difficult (to win). Kuwait are a good opponent, and the competition has been tough. Back then, we only played against SAFF teams. Winning in Karachi in 2005 was very enjoyable, but if we win tomorrow, the joy will be of a different level,” he said.

Gawali’s current-day counterpart Sandesh Jhingan, who missed the semi-final due to a suspension, cannot wait to step onto the pitch for the summit clash and win his first SAFF title. In his absence, Mehtab Singh and Anwar Ali marshalled the defence, leading India to yet another clean sheet.

“I missed being on the pitch. You don’t want to miss the big games, but that’s how football is sometimes,” said Jhingan. “But I think the team did really well. Sitting out there watching the game, I didn’t feel they missed me much. Mehtab, Anwar and the whole backline did well.”

Watching from the stands alongside Stimac and Rahim Ali (who will also be back for the final), Jhingan shared that they had full faith in his teammates’ ability to overcome Lebanon again as they did in Bhubaneswar last month.

“To be honest, I was pretty confident we would get through. I was preparing for the final. Now, the whole focus is on Kuwait. They have been the toughest team to face in the last 8-10 games we’ve played. It’s going to be difficult, and we’re looking forward to it. God bless we win it and make you all happy,” hoped Jhingan.

India have been almost unbreakable in defence lately, conceding just once in their last 10 matches. Jhingan, who was named the Hero of the Tournament in the Hero Intercontinental Cup, acknowledged and appreciated Gawali’s significant contribution to the Blue Tigers’ rigidity at the back.

“Mahesh bhai was one of the best defenders India had during his playing days. We all looked up to him, and it’s amazing for us to have had a longer camp with him. We have received praise for our solid defensive job, and a lot of credit should go to him. He gives us inputs all the time in every session. The system is what brings the best out of any player,” stated Jhingan.

Kuwait head into the final in a rich vein of form, having not lost any of their last eight matches. Abdullah Al-Bloushi has been the difference-maker for the West Asians in their previous two games. He scored the winner against Bangladesh in the first half of extra time with an accurate low strike. Against India, it was his cross from the right, which got deflected into the net by Anwar Ali for an own goal.

However, along the lines of Gawali, Kuwait head coach Rui Bento also expects the final to be a distinct affair from the group-stage match.

“Yes we played a tough game against India, but from my experience over all these years, the final is always a different game. We will fight for the trophy. It’s very important for the players to try to stay focused and play well. We have worked hard to reach the final, and my message to them will be to enjoy the game,” said Bento.

The Portuguese took charge of the Kuwait national team last year and is now one match away from winning the nation’s first trophy since the 2010 Arabian Gulf Cup, where they beat Saudi Arabia in the final.

“We have played seven games in the last 21 days. That’s a lot of games in a short time. But now it’s one final, and we will give our maximum. We need to believe in our process,” concluded Bento.

The Bangabandhu SAFF Championship 2023 Final will be telecast and streamed live on DD Sports and FanCode on Tuesday and will kick off at 7.30 pm IST.

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