Despite a far-from-ideal preparation, the Sunil Chhetri-led Indian football team begins its bid to qualify for the 2023 Asian Cup with a match against Asian champions Qatar on Thursday. Although it is a combined qualification tournament, combining the 2022 World Cup, India is out of contention for the game’s biggest tournament.
India’s other qualification matches are against Bangladesh on June 7 and Afghanistan on June 15.
There is a huge difference in both the quality and rankings of the two teams. While Qatar is ranked 58th, India is 105th.
However, Indian players will draw inspiration from the last time they clashed with Qatar, in a World Cup qualifying match in 2019, at the same venue in Doha. It was a goalless draw, but the Indian team, minus an ailing Chhetri, put up a brave fight and won many hearts. It is considered one of the best results in India’s recent football history.
Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who had captained India in Chhetri’s absence in that match, says the two situations are not similar.
“The situation was different then. The situation is different now. We had headed into Doha after a longish camp [in 2019]. The tempo was exceptionally high despite the defeat against Oman in the previous match,” he recalled.
“In the past few days in Doha, we have picked ourselves up besides getting ready for not just Qatar, but the two other matches which are to follow.”
The Indian team landed in Doha on May 19 and began training two days later. A preparatory camp was to be held in Kolkata from May 2, but owing to the Corona pandemic, it was canceled. The pandemic even robbed India of friendly matches in Dubai as well.
So, the fact that the Indian players haven’t been able to train much outdoors due to the pandemic, could make things tough for India.
Defender Sandesh Jhingan has stressed the importance of preparatory sessions.
“Anyone who understands football knows the importance of a proper preparatory camp, and how important a friendly match is in preparation for a major tournament. Owing to the pandemic, we lost out on friendly matches in Dubai which isn’t ideal,” he had earlier rued.
Sandhu, however, tried to put up a brave front on Wednesday. “In the past few days in Doha we have picked ourselves up besides getting ready for not just Qatar, but the two other matches which are to follow,” he underlined.
There is a minor setback for India as midfielder Rowllin Borges suffered a hamstring injury during training and he remains doubtful for Thursday’s match. There is no other injury concern for the other 23 players, who will be up for selection.
Chhetri said the team would draw inspiration from the drawn match in 2019.
“Qatar is one of the top teams in Asia. They have had some decent results against top European and South American teams in the recent past. The last time we took a point against them makes us confident as a team. We understand that they will come out all guns blazing at us, and we need to stick together as a team,” he said.
Since 2018 Qatar has won 21 of the 35 matches played, with six draws, and eight losses.
Qatar sits atop Group E at the moment with 16 points from six games. Oman is second with 12 points from five matches, Afghanistan has four points from five games, and India has three points from five encounters and is placed fourth. Only Bangladesh is below India, with one point from five matches.
India’s head coach Igor Stimac understands the significance of these three matches and is aware of the commitment of his boys.
“I reiterate, they are all good professionals, and I don’t have much of a task in keeping them motivated. The boys have been working hard with full commitment on the training pitch. They know that they are representing their country, and they will do everything possible to defend the Indian colors,” he said.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh, Dheeraj Singh, Pritam Kotal, Rahul Bheke, Narender Gehlot, Chinglensana Singh, Sandesh Jhingan, Adil Khan, Akash Mishra, Subhashish Bose, Udanta Singh, Brandon Fernandes, Liston Colaco, Rowllin Borges, Glan Martins, Anirudh Thapa, Pronoy Halder, Suresh Singh, Lalengmawia Ralte, Abdul Sahal, Yasir Mohammad, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Bipin Singh, Ashique Kuruniyan, Ishan Pandita, Sunil Chhetri (captain), Manvir Singh
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