Young India need to guard against Pakistan’s set-piece threat

India v Pakistan SAFF Cup semifinal

Venue: Bangabandhu Stadium, Dhaka

Timings: 7:00 pm IST onwards

Big picture

An India-Pakistan clash is big, irrespective of the sport or the stage — and the SAFF Cup semifinal between the neighbours provides Pakistan with an opportunity to reach the tournament’s final for the first time. Standing in their way are the defending champions, who have brought a young team to Bangladesh and are reaping the rewards of having rotated players in their group games. India scored through wingers Ashique Kuruniyan and Lallianzuala Chhangte against Sri Lanka. Against Maldives, Nikhil Poojari replaced Ashique in the lineup and opened the scoring as did another newcomer, striker Manvir Singh. India will start as favourites, but will need to watch out for long balls from Pakistan, a team that is physically bigger and stronger than India’s first two opponents.

This is Pakistan’s first competitive tournament in three years, and Brazilian coach Jose Nogueira has done a good job of bringing in talent from around the world — goalkeeper Yousuf Butt is Canada-born and played in Denmark in his early years, as did strikers Muhammad Ali and Hassan Bashir. Defender Zesh Rehman brings in experience of the Premier League, the first British Asian to have started a match in England’s top-flight during a stint with Fulham that began in 2003.

Pakistan, who qualified to the semis ahead of hosts Bangladesh on goal difference, are in the last four for the first time since 2005, when they hosted the event.

Form guide

(last five matches, most recent first)

India WWWLW

Pakistan WLWDL

In the spotlight

India have rotated players in attack and along the flanks, but one constant has been central midfielder Anirudh Thapa, who sits in front of the back four and doesn’t mind getting involved in attacks himself. Thapa’s passing has been immaculate, as has been his ability — and willingness — to track back. Against a Pakistan team that likes to play long balls, Thapa’s defensive contribution could be vital.

Pakistan are in the last four largely down to the efforts of their strikers, especially Muhammad Ali, who scored a last-gasp winner against Nepal. Danish-born Ali has the ability to play as centre-forward and drop wide and deep, and feed attacking players around him. He will also be a threat on set pieces, an area in which India have been untested so far.

Stats and trivia

  • India have won 18 of 31 matches played against Pakistan, while Pakistan have won only five. India have scored 47 goals in these 31 matches, while Pakistan have scored 24.

  • India and Pakistan have met seven times in the SAFF Cup, with India holding a 4-1 head-to-head advantage. Pakistan’s only win came at the 2003 SAFF Cup in Dhaka, where they beat India 1-0 in the league phase. India would avenge that with a 2-1 win the third-place playoff that year.

  • India have won the only previous SAFF Cup semifinal clash between the two, with IM Vijayan scoring both goals in a 2-0 win in Kathmandu in 1997. Vijayan would score another brace in India’s 5-1 win in the final against Maldives.

  • Pakistan haven’t beaten India since a 3-0 win in June 2005 in Lahore, a three-match series that was split 1-1 between the teams. The first match, a 1-1 draw, was Sunil Chhetri’s debut, where he also scored his first goal for India.

(With statistical inputs from Gautam Roy, football historian)

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