Ashfaq Ali (C) will be the key for Maldives success in the semifinal against Sri Lanka today.Photo: STAR
Reigning champions Maldives and Sri Lanka will renew their rivalry when they face each other in the first semifinal of the Bangabandhu SAFF Championship at the Bangabandhu National Stadium today.
The two neighbouring islanders have been rivals since 1992, with each side contributing to the others development over the last two decades. Hence, they take any match between themselves quite seriously.
"Tomorrow's (Friday) game will be different and unique one as most of the players from both the neighbouring countries know each others very well because many Sri Lankan players are playing the league in Maldives," said Maldives' Hungarian coach Urbany Istavan Bela at the pre-match briefing yesterday.
The Hungarian coach thinks that Sri Lanka might have a better chance in the match, but he is confident to repeat the feat as his boys got the momentum after having played three tough games in five days.
"They might have a better chance because some of their players were rested in their previous match and they are all set to get fresh legs, who got break for at least 24 hours," Bela said. "Of course, I am confident to make my boys ready for getting maximum from them and hopefully we can lift the crown again."
On way to emerging champions in the last edition, co-hosts Maldives ousted Sri Lanka 1-0 in the semifinal on Sri Lankan soil before handing a lone-goal defeat to India in the final.
Maldives have defeated Sri Lanka five times in the previous 14 meetings and went down three times while the results remained unsettled the other six times.
Bela doesn't think the previous record as well as playing in the same league would have any role in deciding the result.
"Every game is unique and different and I think the record will not have any impact on the game though it can motivate the players," Bela said. "Sri Lankan players play for the Maldives domestic league, not for the national team and playing in national team and club is totally different."
The Hungarian coach is, however, worried over the role of referees and is expecting good refereeing in the semifinal match.
After having played a 1-1 draw against Nepal, Maldives bounced back to win both games against Afghanistan and India to qualify for the last four and their captain Ashfaq Ali, Ahmed Thoriq and Fazeel Ibrahim were the central roles behind the inspirational performance.
After confirming the semifinal berths with two victories in a row, Sri Lanka rested six players against Bangladesh keeping the semfinal clash in mind and now they want to cash in on their fresh legs.
"Our morale is high after qualifying for the semifinal by winning two successive matches and we did not put our full strength squad out in the last match because we kept six players in on the bench to use them in the semfinal," said Sri Lankan captain Chathura Mathu ranga, who was also given rest along with Lankesara, Sohinhkumar, Sanjeev, Duddley and Asmeer.
"The match between Sri Lanka and Maldives is always a big game and no one wants to lose to each other," said Chathura. "They are a very good side but I am confident our full strength backline will be able to mange the trio of Maldives strikers."
Sri Lanka captain Chathura and Maldives captain Ashfaq Ali play together for Maldives Radiant in the Maldives league. Besides Sri Lankan players Kasun Jayasuirya and EB Channa have also experience of playing with Maldives players.
After lifting the title of second SAARC Gold Cup, which later turned into the SAFF Championship, Sri Lanka have not reached the final but they are looking to end the drought this time around.
"We lost to them in the semifinal during the last edition, but this is not a revenge match for us. Our motto is to win the match and go through to the final," said Sri Lankan trainer Sumith Walpola, who has been a coach in Maldives for ten years.