The Indian football team are undergoing an intensive camp in Bhubaneswar to prepare for the upcoming tournaments which include the Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championship. Both the tournaments have some big teams this year and it will be interesting to see how the Blue Tigers fare against such teams.
India will face Vanuatu, Lebanon and Mongolia in the Intercontinental Cup followed by teams like Nepal, Pakistan and Kuwait in Group A of the SAFF Championship. Indian captain Sunil Chhetri believes that matches against Kuwait and Lebanon will test their waters. However, playing against top teams will only help them improve their gameplay and also allow them to adapt to different styles ahead of the Asian Cup.
Speaking in the context of the upcoming Asian Cup, Chhetri feels that playing stronger will only help the youngsters grow in stature. He feels that not only these games will assess their abilities but also help in preparing for the big continental showpiece.
“Lebanon and Kuwait will give us an understanding of where we stand, especially as we have to play teams like Syria in the Asian Cup. Uzbekistan could be a level higher. Syria are also a top team. The young boys haven’t played against them, but some of the seniors from Bob Houghton’s time have that experience. They have improved a lot. They are a top side, and obviously, we all know that Australia are one of the best in Asia,” he stated during a media interaction.
India are in Group A of the SAFF Cup along with arch-rivals Pakistan. The Shaheens are bringing in OCI players who have been plying their trade in the lower divisions of England. Speaking on this matter, Chhetri believes that India already has a huge talent pool and one must look to scout talents from across the nation to achieve better results in the long run.
“We are a country with a billion people and we have a bigger pool to choose from. Countries like Pakistan fielding origin-based players are nothing new. Players from Afghanistan also play abroad. So, I think, whenever we get the chance, we will decide on inviting players of Indian origin. But in the longer run, we need to make sure to rely on homegrown talent. Other countries’ criteria are different,” Chhetri opined.
Igor Stimac’s men have been pitted alongside teams like Uzbekistan, Syria and heavyweights Australia. However, Chhetri feels that there are many instances where the underdog teams have showcased their abilities. He highlighted Morocco’s fight at the World Cup. But he also agreed that the group is tougher than what they had in 2019.
“By the looks of it, it seems to be a comparatively more difficult draw than what we had in the 2019 Asian Cup. We always knew it would be difficult. The same was the case in 2019 as well. We had some good moments, especially against Thailand, and in the second half against Bahrain. We need to make sure that we’re tough as opponents. A lot of underdogs have shown their capabilities recently, and Morocco is a prime example in the FIFA World Cup,” he highlighted.
Lastly, the experienced forward feels that India’s minimum requirement should be to qualify for the Asian Cup every time. This will be their fifth Asian Cup campaign and the first where India have qualified on consecutive occasions. This will be Chhetri’s third continental showpiece.
“It’s always a pride to play the AFC Asian Cup. But now we have more knowledge and confidence. The bare minimum should be to keep qualifying for the Asian Cup. It’s highly pivotal for us to keep rubbing shoulders with the best in the continent. A lot has changed for the good, and we need to give a good account of ourselves,” he concluded.
Meanwhile, Phurba Lachenpa and Suresh Wangjam will miss out on the upcoming action as both players suffered injuries. Stimac has called up Hyderabad FC custodian Gurmeet Singh to fill Lachenpa’s void.