Sports

Nepal, India firm favourites yet again

Hosts Nepal and traditional South Asian powerhouse India have once again posed themselves as the best two teams heading into the semi-finals of the fifth SAFF Women’s Champions at the Shahid Rangashala in Biratnagar.
India have won all four previous edition of the tournament since its inception in 2010 and yet again they have posed themselves a class apart from the rest of the teams. The manner of their convincing wins against Maldives and Sri Lanka clearly suggests they are the firm favourites to clinch the fifth title in a row. India hammered Maldives 6-0 and Sri Lanka 5-0 to advance to the semi-finals as Group ‘B’ winners.
Nepal have made it to the title showdown thrice but ended up losing on all three finals to India. The only time they failed to reach the final was in 2016 and even then it was India with whom they lost. Like India this time, Nepal too entered the semi-finals as Group ‘A’ toppers with 100 percent winning record. They beat Bhutan 3-0 and Bangladesh 2-0 in the group matches.
So far both Nepal and defending champions India have yet to concede a goal but the difference lies up front where the four-time champions weigh heavy scoring 11 goals against five by Nepal. Wednesday’s semi-finals pits Nepal against Sri Lanka and India versus Bangladesh.
Considering the tournament history and the present performances, the only team that appears to have any chances of denying India the fifth successive crown is Nepal. Both Nepal and India are the firm favourites to win their semi-final matches. Coincidentally, Nepal can take a huge inspiration from the fact that they beat India in their last encounter during the Hero Gold Cup Women’s Championship in February in Bhubaneswar, India. It was the first Nepal victory over India in 10 encounters. Before the February win, Nepal had lost seven and drawn twice against India.
As usual Nepal rely heavily on their star striker Sabitra Bhandari and skipper Niru Thapa to get the goals. Its not only her coach Hari Khadka who has high regard for Bhandari but also the opponent coach who was awestruck by her quality. Bangladesh coach Golam Robbani Choton termed her as the best striker of the South Asian region. “Bhandari is the best striker of the sub-continent and the captain (Thapa) is equally lethal,” he had said after his team’s 2-0 defeat against Nepal on Saturday.
The fact that Nepal are yet to concede a goal also reinforces their strength in defence. The left-wing Manjali Kumari Yonjan, right-wing Anita Basnet and central midfielders Renuka Nagarkote and Dipa Rai are pivotal in not just making the back line strong but also helping create scoring opportunities for strikers. Like Nepal, India have speedy and powerful wingers in Sanju and Rana Devi Nongmaithem creating scoring chances for the likes of striker Sandhiya Ranganathan.
Barring any semi-final upsets, Nepal and India are poised for another blockbuster title showdown at the Shahid Rangashala on Friday.

PRAJWAL OLI, Mar 19 2019

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