SAFF Championship 2023 takeaways: Chhetri extends fine form, Gurpreet’s heroics, and more
The Blue Tigers got the better of Kuwait in a nail-biting penalty shootout in the SAFF Championship 2023 final to reclaim the title on Tuesday, having previously won it two years ago.
India are SAFF Championship winners again and for the ninth time in history. The Blue Tigers got the better of Kuwait in a nail-biting penalty shootout in the SAFF Championship 2023 final to reclaim the title on Tuesday, having previously won it two years ago.
With Kuwait and Lebanon also invited to participate in the SAFF Championship 2023, India had their task cut out with regards to their title defence. But Igor Stimac’s side passed all tests with flying colours, ending the tournament on an unbeaten note. India have now won all three SAFF Championship editions that have been contested on home soil (2005, 2011 & 2023).
With that, we list down the main talking points from the tournament.
Golden Boot award & new milestone for Sunil Chhetri
For the second edition in a row, Chhetri finished as the leading goalscorer at the SAFF Championships. The Indian captain had netted five goals in the 2021 edition that was won by India in Nepal and matched his tally once more in the latest edition, winning the Golden Boot award.
Chhetri started the tournament with a bang, netting a scintillating hat-trick against Pakistan. He extended his fine run with a well-taken strike against Nepal. And in the group stage game against Kuwait, Chhetri scored for the third game running with a stunning half-volley. With 23 goals to his name, the Indian football team legend is the currently the joint-highest goalscorer in the tournament alongside Maldives forward Ali Ashfaq. Chhetri also scooped the Golden Ball awarded, given to the best player of the tournament.
Gurpreet saves the day
In India’s group stage clashes at the 2023 SAFF Championship, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu featured only in his side’s 2-0 win over Nepal with Amrinder Singh starting against Pakistan and Kuwait.
Gurpreet was recalled into the starting eleven in a crunch semi-final encounter against Lebanon. He put in a solid shift between the sticks, keeping hold of a clean sheet besides making a total of five saves, including one in the penalty shootout where he denied Lebanon captain Hassan Maatouk.
In the final against Kuwait which went into the tie breaker, the 31-year-old once again came clutch. Gurpreet guessed the right way and saved Kuwait skipper Khaled Hajiah’s spot kick, sealing a ninth SAFF Championship crown for the Blue Tigers. It’s no surprise that it was Gurpreet, who was adjudged as the Hero of the Match award in the final.
India's defence stands tall, yet again
Soaring in confidence, the Indian defence, led by Sandesh Jhingan, remained solid throughout the tournament. With a busy run of fixtures, India head coach Igor Stimac rotated players in his backline with each passing game, but the players coming in made the most of their chances. A prime example was Mehtab Singh, who played a massive role in the semi-final, filling Jhingan’s void, and stepped up for the injured Anwar Ali in the summit clash against Kuwait.
India shipped just two goals across five games in the tournament, both which came in the matches against Kuwait. On their way to the final, the hosts even held Lebanon to a goalless draw before beating Aleksandar Ilic’s side on penalties. Prior to the group stage, India had recorded eight clean sheets on the spin, a new record in the making.
Life comes full circle for Gawli
Assistant coach Mahesh Gawli was tasked with the responsibility of taking charge of the Blue Tigers following Stimac’s two-game ban after a red card against Kuwait. Overseeing the squad in the absence of Stimac ahead of the semi-final, Gawli ensured that his team’s confidence remained intact while placing full trust in his squad to get the job done.
The Blue Tigers were tested by the opposition in both the semi-final and final, but their grit and determination was visible, under the guidance of Gawli. India nicked a clean sheet against Lebanon in the semi-finals, despite the absence of Jhingan, before winning it on penalties. They found themself in a tough situation against Kuwait in the final as well after conceding early on, but made their way back into the game and maintained the composure in the penalty shootouts.
For Gawli, it was a third SAFF Championship title and his first as a coach, having previously won it twice as a player in the 2005 & 2011 editions.
"We have received praise for our solid defensive job, and a lot of credit should go to him. He gives us inputs all the time in every session. The system is what brings the best out of any player," Jhingan earlier mentioned.
Another tournament, another unbeaten run
Since the start of the year, India seems to have hit a purple patch. The Blue Tigers have battled it out in three tournaments this year - Hero Tri-Nation Friendly Football Tournament, Hero Intercontinental Cup, the SAFF Championships - and have emerged victorious in all three despite going up against some stern oppositions in the likes of Kyrgyz Republic, Lebanon and Kuwait.
In 11 games across these three tournaments, India did not face a single defeat. They ended up on the winning side on seven occasions while firing 16 goals and conceding just twice in the process. With the AFC Asian Cup 2023 on the horizon, this run bodes well for Chhetri & Co.