Thiruvananthapuram, Dec 30 (IANS) South Asia’s two dominant football nations will face-off in a high-voltage encounter when hosts India take on Maldives in the SAFF Cup semifinal here on Thursday. India so far have impressed in the ongoing tournament with two wins from as many matches. The hosts started off their campaign with a 2-0 win against Sri Lanka, following it with a 4-1 mauling of Nepal. On the other hand, Maldives, who won the tournament the only time in 2008, come into the match after a 1-4 loss to defending champions Afghanistan, before winning 3-1 against Bhutan and 3-1 against Bangladesh. India, ahead of the crucial match, suffered a big blow as star striker Robin Singh was ruled out of the tournament with an impending knee injury. Robin netted twice in India’s win over Lanka. The guidelines of the SAFF Cup, however, state that India won’t be allowed to register any replacement for Robin.
The strength of the squad, hence, at present is 19 which includes three goalkeepers. With Robin out of the frame, coach Stephen Constantine will hope skipper Sunil Chhetri leads the team from the front. Chhetri, Holicharan Narzary and Jeje Lalpekhlua are the options for Constantine in the striking position. Besides Chhetri, all eyes will be on record-breaking teenager Lallianzuala Chhangte. Chhangte, 18, who netted twice against Nepal, became the youngest Indian scorer, moving past the iconic Baichung Bhutia, who did it as a 19-year-old in 1995. Constantine will hope his team gives their very best to secure a place in the final to be played on January 3. For six-time champions India though, any slip-up would be considered a disaster as they are favourites and the full support of the home crowd. Whereas, Maldives, after losing to Afghanistan, will have to do their homework well to make a comeback on Thursday. Coach Ricki Herbert needs to regroup his boys ahead of the do-or-die clash against the South Asian heavyweights. India have beaten the island nation six times in the knockout stage of the SAFF Cup previously. Afghanistan take on Sri Lanka in the other semifinal later in the day.