SAFF Championship: Afghanistan and Maldives get ready to give India a tough time

The defending champions and the island country are expected to be among the strongest sides in the competition.

With the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship scheduled to kick-off a couple of days before Christmas, the travelling countries are getting ready to fight for the silverware, with defending champions Afghanistan and a rejuvenated Maldives side set to be the toughest opponents for Stephen Constantine's men.

Both countries went through extensive training programs with all the national team members unlike the host nation India and are now wrapping up their preparations to leave for Trivandrum.

Maldives, who are ranked 166th, six places above the Blue Tigers, in the latest FIFA Rankings, have had a week-long camp in Malaysia where they played friendlies against four local sides, winning three and losing one.

Prolific goal-scorer and skipper Ali Ashfaq scored in three of those matches and will once again bear the primary responsibility of scoring the goals. Maldives lost their first game against UITM 5-2 before notching up victories against Air Asia FC and PDRM FA by 2-0 and 3-2. In the last match, they came out victorious despite fielding a number of reserve players with Ashfaq's brace leading them to a 4-2 win against UKM.

Ricki Herbert, the coach of the side had a stint with Indian Super League (ISL) franchise NorthEast United in the competition's inaugural season last year and will try to use his experience in Indian football to mastermind Maldives' second SAFF win after seven years.

On the other hand, Afghanistan, ranked 160th, have chosen a squad with little experience in international football. The likes of Haroon Amiri and Mansur Faqiryar have been left out purely due to non-footballing reasons and Ahmad Hatife, the former Mumbai FC midfielder is the only player to have played for an Indian club before.

The war-ridden nation has appointed former Georgia U-21 national team coach Petar Segrt as the head coach only six weeks ago and this will be the first test for the tactician who was linked with the German U-21 natioanl team job a few years ago.

Afghanistan remain the highest ranked side in the region and would have been the favourites to retain the title had they kept the spine of the title-winning team intact, but don't look all that strong now with changes in the squad and management.

The point to note however is that 17 members of the squad are currently playing in foreign clubs, with 15 of them playing in different tiers of European club football. The squad had their first training sessions under the new gaffer in Kabul last week and had gone to Qatar for a five-day camp before arriving in India.