Players of Nepal attend a training session in Dhaka, Bangladesh on Monday ahead of their 2018 SAFF Suzuki Cup semifinal football match against Maldives. | Photo Courtesy: ANFA
KATHMANDU, Sept 12: Nepal national football team is playing its first semifinal of the SAFF Suzuki Cup in five years, against Maldives on Wednesday. If victorious, Nepal will reach the final of the tournament for the first time in history.
Nepal was absent in the 2015 edition of the tournament.
The journey to the semifinal has not been easy though. Nepal lost its first match of Group A against Pakistan 2-1, and struggled to beat host Bangladesh 2-0 in the last match of the group, which sent the team to the semifinals and knocked the host out of the competition. Nepal had a comfortable game against Bhutan when it beat the 183-ranked country 4-0.
With 7 goals, Nepal is the highest goal scorer in the competition, while Maldives has not been able to score even one. Maldives advanced to the last four beating Sri Lanka on coin toss as both the teams had the same points, the same goal difference, the same goal scored, and the same goal conceded.
Nepal’s head coach Bal Gopal Maharjan seemed confident of winning against a team that it has never beaten in the tournament’s history.
“We presented strong performance at the group stage matches and topped the group. We have improved day-by-day. Everyone has given their 100 percent and the bench players have been in good form as well,” Maharjan said. “We have not beaten Maldives in the competition until now, but we are confident in doing that this time. We will create history tomorrow.”
“We have never reached the final of the tournament as well, so we will fully focus on the match and win it. They don’t have the players they used to have in the past like Ali Ashfaq, but still are a good side. But, I am confident in reaching the final,” Maharjan said.
Maharjan’s pre-event confidence of winning the tournament speaks volumes about his strategies of possessing the ball and attacking.
Despite losing against Pakistan, Nepal had the most possession, looked a better side in the middle of the park and had the same number of shots on target.
Against Bhutan, Nepal dominated the game fully and did not let Bhutan come anywhere near the goal. Nepal controlled the tempo of the game, retained possession after losing back, and was clinical in the final third.
Having had 75 percent possession against Pakistan and 63 percent against Bhutan, Nepal did not allow both the teams take authority of the game with swift passing plays, with more attacks from the flanks and less from the middle.
Fullbacks Suman Aryal and Dinesh Rajbanshi have been the crucial part of the team with more attacks coming from their park. They also helped wingers Sunil Bal and Sujal Shrestha with proper coordination in the final third.
Striker Bimal Gharti Magar has also been pivotal to the success of Nepal so far. Of the two goals he scored, the first goal against Bangladesh came from a free kick long way out that was spilled by the keeper. He also scored the equalizer against Pakistan.
Nepal has been solid at the back too, with center backs Ananta Tamang and Aditya Chaudhary playing out of defense, and linking their plays with defensive midfielder Rohit Chand. Tamang also contributed in Nepal’s goals as he scored the first of four against Bhutan.
On part of defense, Nepal did not concede in the last two games against Bhutan and Bangladesh. And if it does not make defensive errors like the ones it made against Pakistan, Maldives will struggle to score against the Nepali side that is full on form and confidence. Keeper Kiran Chemjong has been another pivotal player in the team’s run so far with two clean sheets to his name.
Bal and Nirajan Khadka have been great performers for Nepal, missing out on the starting lineup in the first match against Pakistan, but doing really well against Bhutan in which they both scored, and against Bangladesh in the passing plays.
Nawayug Shrestha and Anjan Bista were not Maharjan’s favorites in the starting XI after their poor performances in the first two games, but both came back superbly against Bangladesh as Shrestha scored the second goal to kill the game, while Bista played a couple of one-twos and was brilliant with his passing range.
Nepal might start with Bishal Rai as well, given Khakda picked up a slight knock against Bangladesh.
Nepal has been superb in both attacking and defending, and against a side like Maldives, it really needs to be on its best to win.
On the other hand, India will be looking to play its seventh final out of the last eight editions of the tournament. In the last six editions, India won the final four times and lost twice. India is the only unbeaten team in the competition so far, and has not conceded a single goal. It defeated Sri Lanka and Maldives with 2-0 scorelines.