Bangladesh will draw inspiration from their success in the AFC Challenge Cup when they begin their SAFF Championship campaign against the spirited home side Nepal at the Dasharath Rangasala Stadium in Kathmandu today.
With India and Pakistan being the other two teams in the group, the match, which will kick off at 6:45pm (Bangladesh Standard Time) and will be aired live on BTV, appears to be crucial for both sides in their pursuit of a semi-final berth.
Bangladesh defeated Nepal 2-0 in the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers in March, which gives them a psychological boost against the hosts, who improved a lot over the past few years and are no longer a pushover in the region.
In a Polish-born American coach Jack Stafenowski, Nepal have a shrewd tactician who can easily surprise 2003 champions Bangladesh, an injury-plagued side that are also struggling with their team combination.
The history suggested Bangladesh will still start as favourites, having defeated Nepal 11 times in their previous 18 meetings with the latter coming successful only on five occasions.
In the SAFF championships, Bangladesh won four of their five matches with Nepal’s only win coming in the last edition in Delhi in 2011. Bangladesh were unceremoniously eliminated from the first round of the SAFF, which made a mockery of their status as the region’s one of the football powerhouses.
Nepal captain Sagar Thapa broke Bangladesh’s heart when he netted from a free-kick in the last minute of stoppage time to give his side a win in Delhi.
Bangladesh’s Dutch coach Lodewijk De Kruif, however, refused to dwell on the past and put his concentration on making a winning start to the competition.
The coach’s major concern is deciding his starting line-up which became puzzling in the wake of injuries to midfielder Mamunul Islam and Sohel Rana.
`We are still treating Mamunul [captain], because he is injured,’ Kruif told reporters in Kathmandu at a pre-match press conference on Friday. ‘We will make a decision on him at the last moment. I have my best 11, but I also have my best 12, 13, 14 and 15. If he does not recover, we have good options to replace him.’
Kruif poured cold water on the rising expectation as many already started saying Bangladesh are title favourites. Bangladesh could manage just a draw in the last edition, which Kruif reminded all, saying in this context any expectation of winning title will only add some pressure on the players.
`People have to realise that two years ago, Bangladesh finished seventh. So after two years, there is no reason for calling us title favourites,’ said the 43-year-old Dutchman.
‘However, still I am very happy with my team, we have good players, they are in good shape although we have some small injuries. We will do our best and give 100 percent for the country,’ he added.
Kruif dropped a hint that he will not include any player in his line-up if he is not 100 per cent fit, no matter how important he is.
`I can’t say with certainty about the injuries, I depend on the knowledge of my medical team,’ he said. ‘If a player is 80 per cent fit only, I think it is not good. I need people who are 100 percent fit physically.
‘And also they have to be fit mentally, because it will be a very hostile atmosphere tomorrow (today) with 30,000 people and everybody has to be fit in every way,’ he said.
Home advantage is something that Nepal coach Stefanowski believes will give his side an edge against Bangladesh.
`It’s a fantastic opportunity to play a tournament at home with the fans and the country behind you, so at the start it can give our team an advantage and give them a go,’ he said.
-With New Age input