Surprise finalists Afghanistan will be the final hurdle for defending champions India in the 2011 SAFF Championship at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium tonight. And if India win, then it will be mission accomplished amongst difficult circumstances.
Once more India will depend on the good goal scoring form of Sunil Chhetri, who has scored six goals in the tournament so far and the Delhi boy will hope to win another trophy with India on home soil after two Nehru Cups and the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup.
"It is still not over as yet. We have just won a semifinal; nothing more than that. The Big Match awaits us. We are yet to win it," a realistic Chhetri said.
But aren't India the favourites in the final? Chhetri shook his head again. "I told you, we haven't won anything as yet. All the good work can go in vain in the next 90 minutes. We shouldn't be so elated," he quipped as he signed autographs after the semifinal win against he Maldives.
You walk away trying to reflect on the final. On paper, India should have it easy. But on the field, Afghanistan threaten to steal a leaf out of India's book. For a country torn by strife and where the sound of gun-shots are common even to a six-month old, this bunch of Men from Afghanistan need to be appreciated too. In fact, more.
Football stays their solace as was evident in their celebrations after reaching the final. No football pundit would have ever advocated such wild celebrations after a semifinal victory - that too after a solitary goal win in extra-time against a vastly improved Nepal. It drains out the players further, they would argue.
Far away from being at their best in their opening encounter against Afghanistan, the Indians have improved with every match. "That was a different match; this will be a different match," echoed Syed Rahim Nabi who tapped in India's opening goal against Maldives in the semifinal. "But we cannot take anything for granted."
For India the SAFF Cup win would be another south Asian trophy to their name, for Afghanistan much more is at stake then they can create football history which would surely lift the spirits back home.
Therefore Team India Coach Savio Medeira stayed cautious as ever. "We know they are dangerous. They have some very good players," he maintained.
Immediately after India had booked their ticket to the final, Sunil Chhetri's gesture to Nabi sums up the spirit in the Indian camp. As the two posed for photographers at the team bench, Chhetri, who had just received his fourth consecutive Man-of-the-match medal, wrapped the medal around Nabi’s neck. "It's a team game," stayed the sentiment. Standing near you could hear all what the players said as they congratulated each other. "Beware, we haven't won the Championship as yet."
The final will kick-off at 18.00 IST with TenAction+ showing the match live.