Kolkata: Skipper Sunil Chhetri gets a chance to bolster his tally of 80 international goals as the Indian team gears up to steamroll 171st place in Cambodia on Wednesday in his bid to make a fifth appearance in the actual AFC Cup tournament .
Cristiano Ronaldo (117 goals from 188 matches), Lionel Messi (86 out of 162 matches) and it’s no wonder the Indian talisman at his level is eager to ride over Cambodia, Afghanistan (150th) and Hong Kong (147th).
While no one compares the international levels at which they operate, it won’t feel bad for the 37-year-old to briefly surpass Lionel Messi.
With the next Asian Cup slated for late 2023 or early 2024 after China’s withdrawal, Chhetri, who will play in international football for 17 years, may see this tournament as the “final frontier” in his illustrious career.
“I want to qualify. If I am not there, my country will be there. So either I drink a beer and watch Udanta sprint, or you drink a beer and I sprint there. But we want to be there,” Chhetri made clear his intentions ahead of his 126th International appearance.
This is a tournament that gives India the best chance of qualifying for the Continental trophy without much fuss, but if there is a misstep against a low-ranked country, Chhetri or coach Igor Stimac will have little room for justification.
The Blue Tigers under Stimac did not have a perfect build-up to the continental flagship, having lost all three international friendlies leading up to the qualifiers.
In between, they suffered an embarrassing 1-2 defeat Indian Super League side ATK Mohun Bagan, won 2-1 against I-League All Stars and was held to a 1-1 draw against Bengal, the Santosh Trophy runner-up of the season.
It has been more than seven months since they won an international-level match – a 3-0 win against Nepal in the SAFF Championship final on October 16, 2021.
The recent results have proved a setback for the Stimac-coached team, who put up some spirited shows in the World Cup qualifiers against Asian heavyweights Qatar (a goalless draw) and Oman (1-2 loss after leading until the 81st minute).
To an “unknown entity” in Cambodia, Chhetri admitted that if they don’t do well against the minnows, half the battle will be lost.
“We’ll play against them first. If we don’t do well against Cambodia, you’ve lost half your battle,” he said.
“From now on we will only think about Cambodia and watch as many videos of them as possible. When we are done (with them), we think of Afghanistan. No doubt Afghanistan is strong too.”
Compared to India’s build-up, the ‘Angkor Warriors’, who qualified for the Asian Cup just once for 50 years in 1972, come here with a 2-1 win over East Timor in a friendly at home.
With their Japanese tactician duo Ryu Hirose and Keisuke Honda at the helm of coaching affairs, the Cambodians will try to surprise the natively backed Indians.
From an Indian point of view, the biggest setback for Stimac in the recent past has been the injury of striker Rahim Ali, who has started to form a strong offensive force with the livewire Chhetri.
Just as he begins to fill the vacuum created by Jeje Lalpekhula, Ali is forced to retire with a muscle injury, as Stimac is forced to look for an alternative combination, but with little success.
Fresh off his hat-trick in the AFC Cup, in-form Liston Colaco, Manvir Singh and Udanta Singh could give a number of options, but it’s hard to match Ali’s ball control and precise passing.
It remains to be seen how Chhetri will approach this issue if they want to make it to the continental championship for a fifth time.
As for defence, Sandesh Jhingan’s match fitness would be under scrutiny as he, along with Subhasish Bose, will form the backbone of the team that has received some criticism in the recent past for conceding late goals.
After playing at home again for almost three years, the biggest plus for India would be the strong home support.
The response has multiplied overnight after Chhetri was shocked and dismayed that Kolkata generated a cold response to India’s matches as estimated by the AIFF.
The AIFF estimated a low “response rate of no more than 5,000” and decided to distribute all tickets “for free”, meaning they would not have to pay a high hosting fee (worth Rs 16 lakh per match).
“Let the three teams that play against us play against us plus you because that will be a huge difference,” Chhetri once again urged fans in a social media post as the match is all set to an overwhelming response .
Eleven places – six group stoppers and five best runners-up – are up for grabs for the 24-team Asian Cup Finals.
Afghanistan will start the Group D Asian Cup against Hong Kong in a 4:30 p.m. match, followed by India’s at 8:30 p.m.
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