The Indian senior women’s team have been kept busy for the last couple of months. After camping for more than six weeks in Bhubaneswar, the Blue Tigresses participated in the Asian Games for the first time in nine years. Now, the Thomas Dennerby-coached squad have landed in Saudi Arabia for the final leg of their preparation ahead of the AFC Women’s Olympic Qualifiers Round 2 in Uzbekistan later this month.
India were left wanting for more in their two defeats to Chinese Taipei (1-2) and Thailand (0-1) at the continental games last month, and Dennerby has mixed feelings about the team’s showing in China. Speaking from Abha, Saudi Arabia, the Swede said, “In one way, I was very happy with the team because I think our performances were definitely up to the mark. We played against two higher-ranked teams. We gave them a big fight, and that was good. But when you play a tournament like the Asian Games, you cannot only be happy playing well because that is not what really counts. Points matter, and we didn’t get those in any of the games, so of course, I was very disappointed about that. But overall, it’s also important to have played two games despite the fact that we didn’t win. It helped us a lot to prepare because now we know a little bit more about the level of the team.”
The challenge lying ahead in the Olympic Qualifiers is significantly tougher, with Japan, among the best in not just Asia but the world, awaiting the Blue Tigresses in the opening fixture on October 26. Vietnam, who made their FIFA Women’s World Cup debut this year, and hosts Uzbekistan, ranked 50, make up Group C. Four teams – the group winners and the best runners-up across the three groups will make their way into the next stage of Paris 2024 qualification. Dennerby believes the runners-up spot is what India, the lowest-ranked team in the group, can realistically hope to achieve.
“Everybody involved in football knows that Japan, against whom we will start the Olympic qualification round two, is a really strong team. The only team who beat the world champion (Spain) 4-0 in the World Cup this summer. They played the Asian Games with, you can say, their B team. The A team were playing against Argentina, who they beat 8-0. So we know it’s a really strong opponent, definitely. But of course, games are not decided on paper. We’re going to do whatever we can to win that game. We never enter the field and have the feeling that, yeah, it’s okay if we only lose with three or four goals. We can’t have that approach. Because if you have that approach, you usually also lose,” said the 64-year-old.
India will then square off against Vietnam on October 29 and Uzbekistan on November 1 in Tashkent. There’s a sense of familiarity for the Blue Tigresses in Uzbekistan having played a friendly against the hosts in March this year. The Central Asians won 3-2 courtesy of an injury-time winner. Grace Dangmei, who won two trophies playing for Uzbek side Sevinch Qarshi last season, and Indumathi Kathiresan scored the goals for India.
“I can say that we will not enter the field being afraid of Vietnam and Uzbekistan. We lost narrowly to Uzbekistan last time. At that time, we also missed a couple of players who are with us now. I will say that Team India are a little bit stronger than it was in March. Vietnam is also a team we respect a lot. But we’re not afraid of anything. So, we will do whatever we can to take that spot as the best runners-up, because I guess it’s going to be tough to beat Japan for the top spot. So realistically, we should be very happy with second place,” shared Dennerby.
India have faced Uzbekistan five times since 2019, resulting in one draw and four defeats. Three of those defeats have come by a one-goal margin. The Blue Tigresses have been getting closer and closer, and now is the best time to get that elusive win in this fixture, according to Dennerby. “The friendly we played in March showed that we can definitely beat them. Of course, when it’s a competitive game, there’s a different approach from both teams. But hopefully, the girls feel that we are coming closer and closer. We have lost to Uzbekistan a few times in the past also. But I think that it’s good for the girls to have the feeling that we are getting closer to beating them,” he said.
Again highlighting the importance of playing two competitive matches on a big stage like the Asian Games, Dennerby explained how the games have helped the team understand the areas they have to work on.
“We still need to develop a lot of aspects of our game – the build-up from behind, and the finishing because a goal-scoring chance is just a chance if not converted. The final pass or the final cross is crucial, and it must come with a lot of accuracy. But also, we need to position ourselves in the box well. When we get the chance, we need to hit the target. As long as you don’t hit the target, you don’t put the ball inside the frame, you can’t score.
“So, we need to be sharper in both the offensive and defensive boxes. I think that the situations in which Chinese Taipei and Thailand scored are situations that we could have handled. It is a bit of weak defending and weak decision-making. So, when you play better teams, you need to be super sharp in both boxes,” Dennerby concluded.