The Indian men's football team's SAFF Championship campaign has been a roller-coaster affair. The Blue Tigers got off to a dismal start but won their last two round-robin clashes to save their blushes and progress to the final. The side failed to defeat 10-man Bangladesh and then squandered a host of chances to draw with lowly Sri Lanka.
Staring at an unceremonious exit from the championship, Igor Stimac's side defeated Nepal and Maldives to unexpectedly top the league stage. While the team is now a win away from an eighth SAFF Championship title, its performance has largely been lacklustre against lower-raked teams. Despite featuring the best of Indian talent, the side has been found wanting on multiple fronts and has been poor for a large majority of the 360 minutes it has played.
Indan skipper Sunil Chhetri, who leads the goal-scoring charts with four goals, acknowledged the team's inconsistent showing but is confident of a better performance in Sunday's final against Nepal. "This has been a topsy-turvy campaign. Our first game was not great, the second was a little better, the third was better than that and the last one was the best. The more we play the better we get," Chhetri said on Thursday.
"We can make no excuses for the way play we played and the chances we missed. When you come to the SAFF Championship, you know that each team wants to beat India and so we need to give it our best. In the game against Nepal, we were guilty of missing many chances and that is unacceptable. Even more so because the senior team is here," he added.
READ: SAFF Championship 2021: 10-man India beats Maldives 3-1 to reach the final
Reflecting on the 3-1 win over the Maldives on Wednesday, in which he struck a match-winning brace that took him within one goal of Lionel Messi's international goal tally, he said, "The mood is better in the camp now. We have gradually performed better and to win a game against a home side with hostile conditions was satisfying. But we also understand and know that the work is not done yet. We are working hard on our recovery with the aim that we will hopefully win a football game and the trophy when we step on the pitch on 16th," he said on Thursday.
The Indians have faced Nepal thrice since September, winning twice and sharing the spoils once. Familiar with their style of play, Chhetri says it will be a close-fought contest. "Nepal might not have extraordinary individuals like Maldives' Ali Ashfaq, but as far as a team, they are the best. Fortunately, we have played them thrice recently and we have understood that they are a good side and are very compact as a team. They have qualified for the final for the first time, which is a testimony of how well they have played. We will face the best team in the final and it won't be easy."
One of the key takeaways from the victory over the Maldives was a strong shift from youngsters Lalengmawia and Suresh Singh. Chhetri, who was named the man of the match, gave his award to Lalengmawia and said he wished he had another award to give Suresh. The 37-year-old felt the youngsters turning up in crucial games was an encouraging sign.
"Those two were brilliant. When the coach chose them to play this game I did not see any inch of doubt in their eyes and behaviour. They were so confident and then to play the way they did was amazing. It made me so happy. Yasir (Mohamed) did really well and has surprised me. Liston (Colaco) is a proper talent. Everyone is chipping in. Subhasish Bose and Rahul Bheke have been brilliant in Sandesh Jhingan's absence. I would say I hope we can continue the same way in the final as well.
"In this tourney, what's been done so far is forgotten very soon. We are the dominant side in this region. No pressure on us, but now that we are in the final, we have probably peaked at the right time and should go all the way. The youngsters doing well is a welcome sign and the fact that players are they are getting a chance to show their skills is great. It doesn't happen in a national team where 17-18 players get a chance," he said. Stimac had named an unchanged lineup against the Maldives for the first time since his arrival in 2019. Stimac and Bose will both miss the final after picking up red cards in the game against the Maldives.
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Chhetri has been the nation's leading goal-scorer and more often than not, the onus to carry the team across the line has fallen on his shoulders. While the pressure is inevitable, he tries his best to stay away from it by steering clear of what's being said about him or the team. He has a motto - to give his best to the country while he can. "I have a very simple mantra, I tell myself ' dost khade ho ja, bohot kam time bacha hai aur bohot kam games baaki hai, chup chaap khade ho ja aur apna best de. Thoda time pe khatam hone wala hai (I tell myself that there is very little time left, only a few games left and to go on and give it my best. It is going to end in some time).
"I tell myself to stop crying, over-rejoicing or putting myself down because it's a fact that this (my career) will end soon. Somedays I'll score and somedays I won't but right now I aim to give my best. I don't want to leave any stone unturned or have regrets," said Chhetri, who has two immediate targets - to win the SAFF Championship and ensure the Blue Tigers qualify for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.