The preparations are in full swing in the Blue Tigers’ camp, as the Senior Indian Men’s National Team get ready for back-to-back tournaments – the Intercontinental Cup (June 9-18, Bhubaneswar) and the SAFF Championship (June 21-July 4). The competition in both tournaments is set to be tough, with quality teams participating.
India (101 in FIFA Rankings) will take on the likes of Mongolia (183), Vanuatu (164) and Lebanon (99) in the Intercontinental Cup, while they will face Kuwait (143), Nepal (174), and Pakistan (195) in Group A of the SAFF Championship. However, one team that is a constant in the back-to-back tournaments, will be Lebanon, as they have been drawn with Maldives, Bhutan and Bangladesh in Group B and could be meeting the hosts again in the knock-out stage.
India skipper Sunil Chhetri believes that playing such teams in the year leading up to the AFC Asian Cup 2023, which is set to take place in Qatar in January, will help the team gauge itself.
“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,” said Chhetri during a media interaction on Saturday, May 27, 2023.
The back-to-back tournaments that the Blue Tigers are set to play are a boon for their long term preparation for the AFC Asian Cup final rounds, feels the India captain.
“The more games we get to play against better opponents, the better it will be for us. We just need to make sure that we manage it well against these opponents,” said Chhetri. “It’s important to make sure that we improve as a team and individually as well. What we do in the camp is really important we must make sure that we are in a position to put our best foot forward once the Asian Cup is here,” he added.
Sunil Chhetri made his international debut against Pakistan in 2005, and now looks set to play same opponents in the SAFF Championship. While Pakistan could rely on a number of overseas based players, Chhetri feels that India’s home-grown talent is better in the longer 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 is nothing new. Players from Afghanistan also play abroad. So, I think, whenever we get the chance, we will decide on inviting the players of Indian origin. But in the longer run, we need to make sure to rely on homegrown talent. Other countries’ criteria are different,” he said.
India have been handed a tough draw on paper in the AFC Asian Cup 2023, as they would have to face the likes of Australia, Uzbekistan, and Syria in Group B. However, Chhetri feels that underdog teams have shown their mettle in recent times, and the Blue Tigers would also like to cause some upsets of their own.
“By the looks of it, it seems to be a comparatively more difficult draw than what we had in 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 are a prime example in the FIFA World Cup,” he said.
“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,” said Chhetri.
There are a number of young forwards that have come through the ranks to make the Senior Men’s National Team, though Chhetri feels that it is up to the players to work hard and make themselves available for that position.
“It’s a catch-22 situation. (Ishan) Pandita, Rahim (Ali), Manvir (Singh), and Sivasakthi are all good players, but they need to work very hard to earn that respect.
“There were matches during the ISL season where Roy Krishna or myself were on the bench on occasions, but Sivasakthi was the one who was always playing. If you give them more opportunities, they will become more confident. But on the flip side, they are also competing against the ISL foreigners, so they need to work hard too,” he said.