Nepal set off to Dhaka on Sunday firmly setting eyes on the elusive Saff Championship football tournament slated for September 4-15.
Despite crashing out from the group stage of the last edition in 2015 in Trivandrum, India, Nepal’s recently appointed interim head coach Bal Gopal Maharjan believes that his team is among the favourites to win the prestigious football tournament of South Asia.
Nepal are pitted with hosts Bangladesh, Bhutan and Pakistan in Group ‘A’. Top two teams from the group qualify for the semi-final. Maharjan, who took over the job from Japanese Gyotoku Koji on August 22, believes that his side was capable of winning the title due to the even playing field. “The standard of the participating is almost the same. To add to our advantage, we are in good shape in all aspects including technical, tactical and physical,” he said.
Despite what appeared over-confidence of the coach, Nepal have failed to pass the first hurdle on seven occasions. The best result Nepal have pulled off in the Championship was a semi-final entry in 1995 (Colombo), 1999 (Goa), 2011 (Delhi) and 2013 (Kathmandu).
Nepal crashed out from the group stage of recently played Asian Games U-23 men’s football tournament losing all three group matches. Nepal lost 1-0 to Japan, 2-0 to Vietnam and 2-1 to Pakistan. Unlike Nepal, Bangladesh had made it to the knockout stage defeating mighty Qatar 1-0, playing 1-1 draw against Thailand and losing 3-0 to Uzbekistan.
Despite the recent defeat to Pakistan, Maharjan insisted that Nepal were capable of coming out on top against the side in Bangladesh. “Saff and Asian Games are totally different events and the approach will also be different. There massive change in the lineup as we can field our senior players in Saff unlike the Asian Games where we were allowed just three of them. We played with defensive mind-set in Indonesia but that will chance as well. We have to be offence in the Saff Championship,” said the 48-year old coach.
Maharjan was also counting on the past record against Bhutan. “We have never lost to them and hope to keep that record intact,” said Maharjan adding that Bangladesh are a bit tough opponent. But he was confident of making it to the last four. Nepal and Bangladesh have played 21 matches with Nepal wining six and losing 12 of those encounters. Three matches have ended in draws.
Most recently Nepal played 0-0 draw against hosts during the Bangabandhu Gold Cup in 2016. In 2015 Nepal lost to Bangladesh 1-0 in friendly match in Dhaka. Of the 14 matches played against Pakistan, Nepal have won five, lost four and drawn five. In their last encounter during the 2013 Saff, the two sides played 1-1 draw. Against Bhutan, Nepal have won all seven matches. India, the most successful team of the tournament, with seven titles under their belt, have decided to field U-23 team giving rest to the national squad after the seniors qualified for the AFC Asian Cup.
In the 20-member squad midfielder Nirajan Khadka has marked comeback in the national fold after six years while defender Suman Aryal has been included for the first time. Goalkeeper Allan Neupane and defender Aryal are the only players yet to make their national team debut. Khadka also calls Nepal as one of the favourites. “We are a balanced team. The team is a good combination of experienced and junior players,” said the skipper of Three Star Club.
All Nepal Football Association (Anfa) on Sunday announced cash reward of Rs 500,000 each to the member of the national squad if they win the title in Dhaka. Anfa president Karma Tsering Sherpa made the declaration during farewell of the team.
Goalkeeper: Kiran Kumar Limbu, Bikesh Kuthu, Alan Neupane
Defender: Dinesh Rajbansi, Devendra Tamang, Biraj Maharjan (C), Ananta Tamang, Aditya Chaudhary, Rohit Chand, Suman Aryal
Midfielder: Hemant Thapa Magar, Heman Gurung, Bishal Rai, Sunil Bal, Sujal Shrestha, Nirajan Khadka
Forwards: Bharat Khawas, Bimal Gharti Magar, Nawayug Shrestha, Anjan Bista