On the eve of their joint 2022 FIFA World Cup / 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers against Afghanistan at the Republican Central Stadium in Dushanbe on Thursday, November 14, senior members of the Blue Tigers family recalled the time when they overcame their old foes to lift the 2016 SAFF Championship in Trivandrum.
Zubayr Amiri had opened the scoring in the 70th minute, before Jeje Lalpekhlua drew level in two minutes. Finally, Sunil Chhetri, who finished the campaign with three goals, scored the winner in extra time. Although it was a “good memory”, Chhetri reminded that it “won’t hold any connection” the two sides face each other on Thursday.
“It was a good moment, of course, mainly because other teams generally look up to us as the formidable team in the SAFF region and everyone expects us to do well. Also, it was at our home. Another important reason was that Afghanistan were playing their last SAFF and they changed their zone later. It was very important for us to do well,” said Chhetri, who went on to heap praises on fellow striker Jeje.
“Jeje was outstanding in the final. He scored the first goal and had an assist too. It was very sweet,” he recalled.
As the times have now changed, Chhetri believes that the upcoming World Cup Qualifier will hold no connection to the past matches.
“They are a respectable side and they are not the same what they were a few years back. Some of the Afghani players were playing abroad and it was a good memory. But I would reiterate that there won’t be any connection to what is going to happen tomorrow,” Chhetri sounded cautious before tomorrow’s match.
“I think the game was incredible. The amount of support and love we got from Kerala throughout the tournament was special. The final was a match which I’ll continue to cherish always,” goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu said.
However, it was not just the SAFF win that made the match special for the India custodian. It was, in fact, the first time that he would take to the pitch in a home match.
“That was my first game at home for the Blue Tigers. It was a difficult game and Afghanistan had some quality players who were, at that time, playing in foreign leagues but we managed to get a result. They will pose a tough challenge for us,” he said.
Full-back Pritam Kotal recalled the match and said that the team was in a ‘nascent stage’ and was, at that time, “growing from strength to strength”.
“The team was at a nascent stage at that time and we were still learning together. The team was growing from strength to strength and that result played the role of a catalyst. Beating Afghanistan in the nail-biting final gave us much-needed confidence,” he said.
“Now, we are more matured and we have grown as a team in the last four years. Given that we are going to face them away, we have to play intelligently and implement the coach’s strategies on the field. If we do that, we could come out with a positive outcome,” Kotal further said.
The match will kick-off at 7:30pm IST (7pm local time) and it will be telecast live on Star Sports network and streamed live on Hotstar and Jio TV.