Chhetri vs Ashfaq: A final battle?
Two of South Asia's best forwards in Sunil Chhetri and Ali Ashfaq, have traditionally been Bangladesh national team's tormentors in chief since they began representing their respective sides India and Maldives in the international arena. Both of them found the mark yet again in the ongoing SAFF Championship by scoring a goal apiece against Bangladesh.
Bangladesh were however not the immediate target either for Chhetri or Ashfaq in today's crucial encounter as they are set to lock horns against each other in a seemingly knockout scenario. Maldives just need a draw to advance to the final while India need an outright victory over Maldives to make it to their 12th SAFF Championship final.
It is not that they will square off for the first time in the SAFF Championship. The duo have squared off before in the regional football championship and India succeeded most of the time. Neither Sunil nor Ashfaq had been in the lineups during the last edition of the championship held in Dhaka in 2018, when Maldives clinched their second trophy, ending a 10-year wait.
This time around one of them has to bid goodbye before the October 16 final. Following today's clash between hosts Maldives and India, both these stalwarts will probably have to say goodbye to the SAFF Championship altogether given that Sunil is now 37 years old while Ashfaq is 36.
Nevertheless, the spectators cannot wait to watch the battle between Sunil and Ashfaq and coaches of both teams bank on them heavily. Ashfaq has a total of 22 goals, seven more than Sunil, who struck 15 goals in the regional football extravaganza.
"We are going to witness two great veterans on the pitch tomorrow; Ali Ashfaq on one side, and Sunil Chhetri on the other. It's a joy to watch them play, and if they were playing in the same team, it would have been a great combination for any coach," said Indian coach Igor Stimac ahead of the group final match.
India have scored two goals in the tournament with Sunil scoring both of them. The goals raised Chettri's international goal tally to 77 and saw him equal Brazil legend Pele's international goal tally.
Maldivian coach Ali Suzain praised both players at pre-match press conference on Tuesday.
"Ashfaq and Sunil have been playing outstandingly for a long time. Both of them gave a lot to football as well as their countries. One [Sunil] is a great player in the box and he can even take advantage of a little opportunity in the box. The number of goals is proof of Sunil's standard. Ashfaq is also an excellent player playing with great agility and effectiveness in and outside the box. Ashfaq had a nice header against Sri Lanka. We hope we will be happy tomorrow," said Suzain.
Whoever comes out successfully in the match, the spectators will gladly enjoy the battle of Sunil and Ashfaq.