The Blue Tigers last won the title in 2015-16 and were the runners-up in 2018.
The India squad for the upcoming SAFF Championship 2021 was announced on Sunday. Igor Stimac will be taking a 23-man squad to the Maldives for the tournament, as he hopes to win his first silverware with the Blue Tigers.
India’s squad is quite similar to that which played two friendly games against Nepal recently. Sandesh Jhingan is a notable absentee due to injury and his duties with HNK Sibenik, while Amrinder Singh also pulled out at the last minute.
So, just how strong is this Blue Tigers’ squad going into the tournament? Let’s have a look.
Arguably the strongest department for the Indian national team, the goalkeeping department is in safe hands (pun intended). Amrinder Singh was initially among the three goalkeepers for the SAFF Championship, but Dheeraj Singh replaced him afterwards.
Ideally, it will be Gurpreet Singh Sandhu who plays the majority of the games. The Indian national team No.1 didn’t have the easiest of times against Nepal, conceding a poor goal. However, Sandhu’s experience and ability to come up clutch in big games can’t be underestimated.
Dheeraj Singh also comes off an impressive season with FC Goa in the Indian Super League (ISL) and the AFC Champions League, where he made the most saves in the group stage. His distribution ability and shot-stopping skills guarantee him some game-time in the SAFF Championship.
Vishal Kaith is the third-choice goalkeeper. He’s also an impressive shot-stopper with the traits to excel under the tactician’s style. However, unless India experience a major goalkeeper crisis, he’s unlikely to play in the SAFF Championship.
The interesting talking point here is that Stimac has only opted to take one specialist centre-back to the SAFF Championship. With no Jhingan, Chinglensana Singh is the only natural centre-back in the squad.
Of course, the likes of Rahul Bheke, Pritam Kotal and Subhasish Bose can all slot into that role. But, neither are especially proficient at it. Kotal and Bose both struggled in similar roles against FC Nasaf recently.
That being said, Stimac has taken an experienced set of defenders to the SAFF Championship. Kotal did have a really solid ISL season, while Bose was pretty good in the AFC Cup group stages for ATK Mohun Bagan.
Stimac will hope that Chinglensana can take control of his backline in the tournament. The centre-back had a solid season with Hyderabad FC in the ISL and has seemingly settled into the Croatian’s system really well.
Seriton Fernandes has also been given the nod and will eye the right-back spot for himself. After being so consistent for FC Goa in the ISL and AFC Champions League, Fernandes now looks ready to impress on the international stage.
Mandar Rao Dessai is the left-back option in the squad. He’s more than capable to slot in as a left winger, left wing-back or full-back. His versatility should amplify the options on the left. Stimac will hope that Mandar can do the job after surprisingly leaving out Akash Mishra from the squad.
Out of the 23 players selected in the squad, 10 are midfielders. Stimac’s possession-based style prefers playing with more midfielders, so this isn’t entirely surprising. A notable absentee from the squad is Mumbai City’s Rowllin Borges, who despite a successful ISL campaign, couldn’t manage to win over Stimac.
From the Nepal friendlies’ squad, Bipin Singh and Pronay Halder have been left out in the SAFF Championship one. Bipin’s absence is the more prominent one.
Among the midfielders selected, Brandon Fernandes is the one likely to start all the games. Fernandes is India’s most creative outlet, with his excellent delivery from set-pieces making him a crucial part. Brandon will be key to opening up defences for India and feeding the forwards.
Glan Martins remains India’s sturdiest central midfielder. With his high energy levels and tendency to break up play, the FC Goa man is a crucial part of the squad. However, it remains to be seen who plays alongside him. Stimac admires Suresh Singh, often pairing him up with Martins to create a vibrant midfield duo.
However, Singh’s inexperience and overzealous attitude has occasionally caused trouble. Anirudh Thapa is among the most creative midfielders in the squad. India need to score goals in these games and the Chennaiyin FC man has that cutting edge to be involved in goals.
Lalengmawia, Jeakson Singh and Sahal Abdul Samad will all be desperate to break into the starting XI. Apuia’s composure and excellent technique mean keeping him out will be difficult. Jeakson can also slot in as a sturdy defensive-midfielder whenever needed. Sahal’s skillful nature and creativity makes him another attacking option for the Blue Tigers.
When it comes to wingers, Udanta Singh, Liston Colaco and Mohammed Yasir are among the ones selected. Udanta’s going through a rough patch this year and has to really excel when given the opportunity. Colaco’s dribbling ability and unpredictable nature make him a pivotal part of the squad, while Yasir is likely to act as an impact substitute.
Stimac has opted to stick with four forwards in Rahim Ali, Sunil Chhetri, Farukh Choudhary and Manvir Singh for the SAFF Championship. Ishan Pandita still doesn’t seem to get a place back in the team, despite his heroics for FC Goa in the ISL last season.
Chhetri will start the majority of the matches. He might only be rested towards the last games if India are able to pull off big wins in their first few ones and cement a place in the final.
Manvir Singh should also be a starter for India, probably in the right wing role. He’ll hope to create chances from that side and also cut in to take more shots on goal.
Ali could end up playing in a front two with the Indian captain – or perhaps just behind him. With his physicality, impressive link-up play and finishing ability – expect Rahim to get more game-time in the SAFF Championship.
Choudhary should also feature in a few games, but is likely to come on as a substitute when India are longing for goals in games. He should play down the wings, but if able to get among the goals, Choudhary could carve a starting role for himself in the tournament.