Anirudh Menon5 Minute Read
India, on a superb run of international form, will be taking on Lebanon in the second semifinal of the 2023 SAFF Championships at 7.30 PM on Saturday, July 1 at the Kanteerava Stadium, Bengaluru. The latest rankings released by FIFA indicated just how important these competitive matches are, but beyond that the match gains significance considering the need to maintain the optimism around the national team.
Of which there is plenty right now.
Take the last time India played Lebanon, for instance — their head coach Igor Stimac described the second half as “the best 45 minutes from India in the last five decades.” Hyperbolic to the extreme, but you could see why he had said it so confidently. In that second half of the Intercontinental Cup final (just 12 days ago), India played the kind of proactive, high-pressing, possession-dominating football their fans had been craving. The goals scored were tap-ins and that somehow made it better — because rather than the individual brilliance of one talented player (i.e., Sunil Chhetri), the focus was on the buildup by the attacking unit as a whole.
They have continued that sense of collective football into the SAFF Championship. Chhetri is still grabbing all the goalscoring headlines, but that’s because he’s the centre-forward, and it’s the centre-forward’s job to finish off chances created by those around him.
Speaking ahead of the semi, Chhetri was keen to stress upon this collective strength. He spoke about the emergence of young players (“like Mahesh and Chhangte”) and said the mix of youth and experience that make up the squad is holding them in good stead.
He also made it a point to warn against “hyping up” the performances of the team. “What we are taking is nice, normal steps… we should keep our head down and keep doing that,” he said.
India will miss three members of their squad, all due to suspension. Igor Stimac was shown a red card (again, second straight game now) and will not be on the sidelines while the leader of this impressive defence, Sandesh Jhingan, will miss out due to an accumulation of yellows (two in two). Also missing will be Chhetri’s lone centre-forward backup Rahim Ali who was sent off during that ill-tempered finish to the Kuwait game on Tuesday.
Lebanon are missing two players from the squad that landed in India for the Intercontinental Cup. “Two of our players (Jihad Ayoub and Soony Saad) have returned to their clubs since this tournament isn’t taking place during the FIFA international break.”
Stimac’s presence will be missed — it was his ‘hairdryer’ of a team talk at halftime during the Intercontinental final that stirred life into what had been a game of slow-drip attrition in the first half. It’s also become evident that his aggressive optimism on the touchline often rubs off on the team. Chhetri said that while they’ll undoubtedly miss “our leader, our boss” the team will have been well prepared by the coach beforehand, and that his “main man” Mahesh Gawli [assistant coach] would take care of things on the touchline. Gawli, a reticent man prone to one-line answers merely smiled and nodded his head.
On the pitch, meanwhile, Jhingan will be missed. Where Ali, Mishra and Poojary provide more adventure than we have seen from an Indian back four for quite some time, Jhingan is the anchor. Sweeping behind, flying into well-timed last-man challenges, being in the right place to snuff out attacks — Jhingan has carried his excellent league form over to the national side; and his absence will have a big impact. Both Chhetri and Gawli were keen to point out that India have reasonable depth now, though, and you’d expect one of Rahul Bheke or Mehtab Singh to come in. Bheke’s experience may just tilt the decision in his favour.
Lebanon head coach Aleksander Ilic bemoaned his team’s conversion of chances. Speaking about his main learnings from his trip to India for the tournaments, Ilic reiterated his commitment to have Lebanon play attacking football, but “now the need is to take those chances, to score more goals.”
The main culprit across both tournaments has been young centre forward Karim Darwich. His movement off-the-ball has been impressive but it’s that final touch in the box that appears to let him down. In the Intercontinental Cup, Darwich was shackled by Jhingan, but the latter’s absence might provide him the kind of freedom that could spark that finishing touch.
Only two opposition players were name-checked by the managers at the press conference. Ilic spoke about “the quality of Chhetri inside the box” while Gawli said, “we must watch out for the #7 [captain Hassan Maatouk]. He is a very talented player.”
The threat of Chhetri (92 international goals and counting), meanwhile, is evident. As much as the offence has improved over the past few years, it’s still Chhetri doing the goal-scoring. India will be counting on him to deliver once again.
Ilic spoke about the fact the two teams played each other twice just a fortnight ago. “Both teams know what they’ve got in front of them. There are no secrets between the teams anymore,” he said. “We will try to build the best team with the choices we have for tomorrow. It’s psychologically important that we believe that we can succeed. The weather is more pleasant here [compared to Bhubaneswar, where the Intercontinental Cup was held]. We will use those two games to build ourselves in a better way for tomorrow.”
India W: 2
Lebanon W: 3
India XI (4-2-3-1): Gurpreet (GK); Nikhil Poojary, Rahul Bheke, Anwar Ali, Akash Mishra; Jeakson Singh, Anirudh Thapa; Lallianzuala Chhangte, Ashique Kuruniyan, Mahesh Singh Naorem; Sunil Chhetri.
Lebanon XI (4-4-2): Ali Sabeh (GK); Hussein Zein, Mouhammed Ali Dhaini, Walid Chour, Mohammad El Hayek; Zein Al Abidine Farran, Nader Matar, Ali Tneich, Hassan Saad; Hassan Maatouk, Karim Darwich.