Venue: Mumbai Football Arena
Date: June 4, 2018
On Saturday night, Indian football captain and star striker Sunil Chhetri put out a tweet that has potentially guaranteed an almost sold-out stadium at the Andheri Sports Complex for India’s second Intercontinental Cup match against Kenya. Everyone from Virat Kohli to Sania Mirza retweeted Chhetri’s earnest request to football fans to attend their national team’s match after India played to poor attendance against the Chinese Taipei. Only 2500-odd fans attended Chhetri’s record-breaking feat on Friday night in the heart of suburban Mumbai. But the result of his tweet has been overwhelming.
On Monday night, the Indian football team – the Blue Tigers – will look to reach the Final of the Hero Intercontinental Cup by winning their second consecutive game and defeating the Harambee Stars. The match is remarkable for many reasons.
It will mark Sunil Chhetri’s landmark 100th international game for his country. He is India’s all-time leading goal scorer with 59 – and with his third career hat-trick against the Chinese Taipei on Friday, became the third highest “active” goal scorer tied with David Villa behind legends like Cristiano Ronaldo (81) and Lionel Messi (64). India and Kenya have both won one game each – Kenya defeated New Zealand last week – and are also the favourites to play the Final on June 10th.
This will be only India’s third international match of 2018. They have lost one – by two goals to one against Kyrgyz Republic in March – and won one, against Chinese Tapei. In 2017, India won 7, lost 3 and drew 2 games – crashing out of the second round of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers after putting up a fight against stronger teams like USA, Columbia and Ghana. Head coach Stephen Constantine has nursed Indian football back to health after taking over again in 2015, when India had held its lowes ever spot in the FIFA rankings (173). Currently, India is ranked 97 – its highest since 1996 when it was ranked 94 in the world. India is the highest ranked team in the InterContinental Cup, ahead of Kenya (111), Chinese Taipei (121) and New Zealand (133).
Sunil Chhetri – the captain is on a high, and combining superbly with strike partner and Chennaiyin forward Jeje Lalpekhlua at the front.
Udanta Singh – the talented 22-year-old Bengaluru midfielder scored his first international goal against Chinese Tapei on Friday, and has integrated well into the senior team after making his debut in 2016. He has figured highly in coach Constantine’s plans. His form is key to the oxygen supplied to his prolific frontline.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu – the Bengaluru FC goalkeeper is one of the best in the country. With him in goal, the club let in only 16 goals in 18 group-stage games, and went on to lose to Chennaiyin in the Final. He is the first Indian ever to have played for a top-division European club (Norwegian club Stabæk Fotball) and participate in a Europa League game. This will be the 26-year-old’s 20 th game for the national team since 2011.
Kenya might be the physically stronger and faster team, but the Indians are playing at home, in good form, with the crowd as their 12th man. Expect Gurpreet to be tested, and Chhetri to have the last say. This could be the rare hat-trick of wins, and momentum, India has been looking for.
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