At stake are ‘pride, honour and reputation’ for the Indian Senior Women’s Team as they take on Uzbekistan in their last match of the Paris 2024 AFC Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament Round 2 on Wednesday, November 1 at the Bunyodkor Stadium in Tashkent at 5.30pm IST.
Back-to-back losses against Japan and Vietnam have dashed the Blue Tigresses’ Paris dream. Two games where India went down fair and square despite showing glimpses of what they’re capable of. But head coach Thomas Dennerby reiterated that when you’re playing against teams of this level, just glimpses are never enough.
“Absolutely, the most important thing for us is to have a better build-up and not give away the ball easily. That’s the main problem. We need to fulfil our roles in the defensive organisation,” he said.
“But if we have our best day at work, I think we are definitely capable of getting a draw or a win against Vietnam. But some small individual mistakes destroyed that game,” he added.
But what’s gone is gone. Following losses to two World Cup teams, India face a rather familiar face in Uzbekistan. The Blue Tigresses played a friendly with the hosts in March at the Pakhtakor Stadium, losing 2-3. Goals from Dangmei Grace and Indumathi Kathiresan cancelled out Diyorakhon Khabibullaeva and Lyudmila Karachik’s strikes before Kamila Zaripova nicked the win in the 92nd minute.
Expecting a similar tight contest again tomorrow, Dennerby however, pointed out the biggest difference will be that this time, it’s a competitive match, and Uzbekistan’s Olympics hopes are still alive despite losing 0-2 to Japan on Sunday. Midori Honda’s side had beaten Vietnam 1-0 before that courtesy of Khabibullaeva’s goal.
“We play the host and it’s going to be crowded. But still, we need to play for our honour. We need to show that India are a good team. So I really hope that the girls are ready to fight even though we cannot come to the Olympics next year. But of course, fighting for your reputation and honour should be, I hope, enough motivation,” said Dennerby.
Very little may have gone right for India, but the most positive individual performances have come from the boots of defender Ritu Rani, according to Dennerby. The 26-year-old has earned the trust of the Swede, who deployed her at right centre-back in a new five-at-the-back formation against Japan. India had to re-adjust their backline again after Dalima Chhibber’s injury before the Vietnam match, where Ritu’s decent and no-nonsense performance at right-back was admired by Dennerby.
“Individually, I’m feeling good. Winning the coach’s trust and getting the chance to play is what a player wants,” said Ritu. “But as a team, our performance hasn’t been up to the mark. Our results could’ve been different if we had done better.”
Ritu made her India debut in 2019 at the COTIF tournament in Spain, and first played under Dennerby in the Brazil tour in 2021, starting in the match against Venezuela. “In that match, the coach told me that my performance stood out in the team. He trusts me to come on in any situation and I’m always ready for that,” she shared.
“Now football is like this. Everybody has to play in different positions. There’s a difference between playing in central defence and at full-back, but I felt settled,” said Ritu regarding her new position in the last match.
It’s not just defence, but also her ball-playing abilities which have caught the eye. It was Ritu’s free-kick assist which landed India’s first goal of the tournament as Sandhiya Ranganathan headed her lofted ball into the net.
“Now, we’re looking forward to our last match. We’ve nothing to lose now. Uzbekistan are a good side, but not that good that we can’t beat them. We need to win this match in any case. We want to head back home with a victory,” Ritu said.