Nepal target first SAFF finalCoach Almutairi’s men need at least a draw against Bangladesh today to reach the final.
Nepal will aim to reach the final of the SAFF Championship for the first time when they take on Bangladesh in their final group match in Male, the Maldives on Wednesday.
Nepal were already in pole position in the five-team single group standings and could have accomplished the historic feat on Tuesday had they defeated India. But Abdullah Almutairi's men surrendered to a 1-0 loss against their South Asian rivals, which has pushed the race for the final to the wire.
The top two finishers of the round-robin league directly advance into the final. Sri Lanka have already bowed out of the championship without a win.
Nepal have six points and share the top-two spot with the hosts Maldives. A draw against Bangladesh will be enough for the Kiran Kumar Limbu-led team to secure their place in the final.
However, Almutairi cannot take a risky approach against the Bangladeshi side as they did against India, which cost them dearly. The Kuwaiti opted for a defensive game against the South Asian giants and was punished by Sunil Chhetri with a late winner.
The coach is likely to play the usual 4-3-3 formation against Bangladesh, who are in a must-win situation if they are to reach the final. Bangladesh sit in the fourth position with four points.
Nepal have never progressed beyond the semi-finals in the SAFF, with their best run coming in 1995, 2011, 2013 and 2018 when they were eliminated from the last four.
But in Male, Nepal are in the best position to advance. Against Bangladesh, their confidence will remain high. They defeated both the Maldives and Sri Lanka for the first time in 22 years. They also enjoy a better head-to-head record against the Bengal Tigers. Bangladesh have not defeated Nepal since their 2-0 group stage victory in 2005 SAFF Championship. Since then, Nepal have come at top in each of their three meetings in the biennial sub-continental competition. Bangladesh lost 1-0 to Nepal in 2011 SAFF in New Delhi, 2-0 in 2013 in Kathmandu and 2-0 in 2018 at their home ground. All three defeats were in the group stage.
Bangladesh were able to hold Nepal to a 0-0 draw in the Three Nations Cup league stage but eventually lost to hosts Nepal 2-0 in the final match held in Kathmandu in March this year.
A win or a draw against Bangladesh at the Maldives National Football Stadium will give Nepal another shot at creating history. Nepal will vie against either the host nation or India in the final of the 13th edition of the competition and would look for their maiden SAFF trophy.
Meanwhile, defending champions Maldives also need at least a draw against India to secure their place in the final.
The seven-time champions—who have five points and are third in the standings—must win the game to bring the result in their favour.
For India, defeat against the hosts means they will fail to reach the final of the tournament for the first time in 16 years. Since the inception of SAFF in 1993, India have reached every final except in 2003 when they suffered a shock 2-1 defeat against Bangladesh in the semi-finals.
Nepal vs Bangladesh, 16:45 NST
India vs Maldives, 21:45 NST