Bengaluru: The SAFF Championship has been a happy hunting ground for India, with the Blue Tigers winning eight of the 13 editions held so far. However, the ongoing 2023 edition of the championship is a rather special one, with the presence of quality teams like Lebanon and Kuwait, who have been brought in as special invitees.
India, who are on a preparation path for the AFC Asian Cup, which is set to take place in Qatar next year, have got some valuable experience of playing matches against Kuwait and Lebanon, along with games against South Asian Teams like Pakistan and Nepal.
AIFF secretary general Shaji Prabhakaran said, “This SAFF Championship proved to be of higher competitive value because we have had two teams that were from outside the SAFF region. The quality of the matches have been a leg up from the previous editions, be it for India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, or Maldives.”
He further went on to state that the high quality of the two teams from West Asia, along with much-anticipated rivalries like India vs Pakistan meant that the 2023 edition of the SAFF Championship has had its fair amount of fanfare.
“The fans have been absolutely fabulous. The atmosphere in Bengaluru has been electric, and we experienced the SAFF Championship in India after quite a few years too,” he said. “The India vs Pakistan match arguably had a cricket-like atmosphere. The responses on social media have been great too, which shows that the average sports fan is very much keen on India’s progress in the tournament,” he was quoted as saying by AIFF.
The SAFF Championship in Bengaluru has also thrown up a number of firsts. India skipper Sunil Chhetri has been at the forefront of such records, having equalled Maldives captain Ali Ashfaq’s tally of 23 goals in the SAFF Championships, the joint-highest by any individual.
Chhetri, with his hat-trick in the opening match of the SAFF Championship against Pakistan, also became the second-highest goalscorer in the history of Asian football, overtaking Malaysia’s Mokhtar Dahari (on 89).
While the India captain has been on red-hot form up front, banging in the goals, Blue Tigers custodian Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has been quietly doing his job at the other end, earning five consecutive clean sheets for India, stretching from the Hero Intercontinental Cup. The 31-year-old has set up an individual record of five back-to-back clean sheets, beating his own record of four back in 2018, when he did not concede goals in the Hero Intercontinental Cup and in the International Friendly against China.
Furthermore, the efforts of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Amrinder Singh in goal have meant that India equalled its own record of eight consecutive clean sheets, which spanned from the Tri-Nation Cup to the Intercontinental Cup last month, and to India’s second match in the SAFF Championship against Nepal. The last time India achieves such a feat was more than seven decades ago, back in 1950-51, when the Blue Tigers kept eight back-to-back clean sheets (two friendlies against Ceylon, three friendlies against Afghanistan, and the first three matches of the 1951 Asian Games).
The defending champions are on the march, and have shown great character, especially against tougher opponents like Kuwait and Lebanon, and are now set to face the former yet again in the summit clash at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium Tuesday.