The Blue Tigers will look to secure their maiden victory in SAFF Championship 2021 against Nepal on Sunday. 

The Indian national team, considered as one of the favourites coming into this edition of the SAFF Championship, have not been convincing so far. After failing to secure a victory against 10-men Bangladesh, Igor Stimac’s side were held to a draw by Sri Lanka. In their most crucial fixture of the tournament so far, India will face table-toppers Nepal on Saturday. 

We’ve already seen a glimpse of what is on offer during the two friendlies in early September between these two regional rivals. While Nepal’s aspirations with Abdullah Almutairi are flying higher than ever, getting their finishing boots ready will put them in a position to hurt the Indians. 

While that’s only one side of things, there are more nuanced individual components that will affect the dynamics. Here are five such individual battles to look forward to in the Nepal-India clash: 

5. Tej Tamang Vs Anirudh Thapa

Anirudh Thapa has been Stimac’s go-to midfielder for quite some time now. The youngster has already started both the games in this year’s tournament. In addition to his creative flair, the Chennaiyin FC midfielder’s off-the-ball actions are valuable for the Croat’s system. Often seen pressing with grit whenever his side are out of position, Thapa’s capability will be key for the Indians against Tej Tamang. 

Tamang, under Almutairi, has been one player who has impressed in midfield. In addition to his outside runs, Tamang can effectively operate as a No. 6. The 23-year-old is skillful and always looks to make runs as a box-to-box midfielder. Considering his abilities, Nepal’s ball progression from midfield and also the task of slowing down opposition attacks, is threaded to the midfielder.

Since both players share similarities, the midfield battle between them will largely determine the two sides’ central progression. Each of them will look to get into spaces as well as nullify the other whenever they’re off the ball. A similar contest took place during the second friendly in Kathmandu in early September. The Thapa-Tamang battle, hence, will be a quiet, yet crucial in the Nepal Vs India contest.

4. Rohit Chand Vs Sunil Chhetri

India’s talismanic forward Sunil Chhetri has scored five so far against the country he has special ties with. Occupying a more central role under Stimac, the 37-year-old can still win matches for India. He’s done that frequently as well. The Nepali side will have Rohit Chand this time around, unlike the two friendlies in September. 

After the head coach switch, Persija Jakarta’s star Rohit Chand has been a regular centre-back. In addition to his on-the-ball skills, Chand is a good tackler when it comes to last-man challenges. For the philosophy that Almutairi embraces, he offers defensive robustness and progression at the same time. Chhetri’s ability to quickly get behind defences with his intelligent runs will come handy against the youngster. Chhetri, as the leader of the first line of the press, will be in-charge of intercepting the passing lanes.

3. Pujan Uperkoti Vs Brandon Fernandes

Brandon Fernandes, operating in the No. 10 slot, provides India with much-needed creativity. The FC Goa midfielder can operate between the lines, making it tricky for the opposition to pick his passes. Nepal’s 4-1-4-1 shape off-the-ball, however, might cause difficulties to Fernandes with the sole holding midfielder picking out short passes in the middle. Nepal’s No. 1, in this case, is Pujan Uperkoti. 

After switching Rohit Chand to the central defender’s slot, Uperkoti has emerged as one reliable defensive midfielder for Nepal. He was really involved as the sole man in front of the four-man defence against Nepal’s 2-3 win against Sri Lanka. Uperkoti’s ability to drop deep and collect balls from defence is paralleled by his nature to position and pick out passes. In this case, Fernandes will look to free himself up and get around Uperkoti, as well as staying close to his shadow to limit progression in advanced areas.

2. Anjan Bista Vs Pritam Kotal 

Nepal vs India
India must win their game against Nepal to have a chance of qualifying for the final

As of late, Anjan Bista has been the jewel in Nepal’s crown. The attacker is versatile and is able to often find solutions in and out of the final third to create scoring chances. Often operating in the left half-space and zone-14, Bista can be the one that the Indian defence will have to be wary of. With Sandesh Jhingan out of the squad, Pritam Kotal is the key man for India.

While Bista’s tendency to drop into midfield will require a midfielder to mark him, his advanced runs will need Kotal to step up for India. The 23-year-old is capable of drawing players towards him before threading a pass into the path for a striker or allowing a full-back to overlap. If Kotal manages to win this battle, India will have a major chunk of the defensive burden lifted off their shoulders. Bista has already shown his abilities in this edition, with a goal against Sri Lanka and by contributing to the majority of Nepali attacks. 

1. Manish Dangi Vs Rahul Bheke 

Manish Dangi has emerged as the golden boy of the Abdullah Almutairi era in Nepali football. Although Ayush Ghalan also makes for a good case, Dangi, with his pace, can be lethal coming off the bench. Considering India’s struggles to go vertical quickly, them getting caught in transition will see Dangi running down the left wing frequently. In these situations, Rahul Bheke will be the man that India will count on. 

Starting from the left wing, Dangi likes to stay wide and hence, will make things difficult for Bheke. Provided that he manages to keep pace with Dangi and also keeps track of his defensive positioning, he will have a decent chance of nullifying Almutairi’s second half game plan.

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