Igor Stimac has spoken of rotating players to manage a possible nine games in 26 days – India played eight in 2022 – but the Croat head coach could need all his persuasion skills to keep Sunil Chhetri on the bench in the Hero Inter-Continental Cup and the SAFF Championship.
For one, Chhetri did not start 11 of Bengaluru FC’s last 12 games in ISL. For another, he has not scored a field goal for India since June 2022. For a third, with the caveat that rest and recovery are equally important, the India captain is convinced that you get better by playing more.
So, asked how he is readying to play a game almost every three days in the Indian summer, Chhetri, 38, responded: “With a big smile.” What happens, “when we play for our clubs, the way we play is a little different. The four foreigners are an integral part of every team so in the national team, you need to adjust.”
It took Lallianzuala Chhangte and Bipin Singh “18-20 games and the Durand Cup” to get the “kind of camaraderie” they did with Ahmed Jahouh, Apuiah (Lalenmawia Ralte), Jorge Diaz and Craig Stewart at Mumbai City FC, said Chhetri. More training sessions and more games will help the national team, where some players like Nandhakumar Sekar are new, understand each other and weed out errors, he said.
India play Mongolia, Vanuatu and Lebanon in the Inter-continental Cup (June 9-18) and are grouped with Kuwait, Nepal and Pakistan in the SAFF Championship (June 21-July 4). “We don’t know much about Vanuatu and Mongolia so that will be a good test,” said Chhetri. But playing Lebanon and Kuwait will help India prepare for the Asian Cup game against Syria, he said.
India are in group B with Australia, Syria and Uzbekistan in next January’s Asian Cup, the continent’s highest international competition. “It seems a little more difficult than last time but we always knew the Asian Cup would be difficult,” said Chhetri at a virtual media conference on Saturday.
In 2019, India were grouped with Thailand, UAE and Bahrain. India beat Thailand 4-1, lost 0-2 to UAE and, needing a draw to qualify to the round of 16, lost 0-1 to Bahrain through a stoppage-time penalty.
“We had some good performances but weren’t great in some moments, especially the second half against Bahrain. We are thinking about being as tough an opponent as possible. A lot of teams who are underdogs have shown us, one name that comes to mind is Morocco, that if you are organised, you can make it difficult for other teams. That’s our prime target.”
In 2011, returning to elite Asian football after 27 years, India were grouped with Australia, South Korea and Bahrain. Chhetri is the only Indian link between three editions. The excitement and pride are constant, he said. “What has changed is, I think, there is more confidence, more knowledge.”
Chhetri wasn’t just speaking for himself. The squad that will go to Qatar next January will have more information on the teams and a greater awareness about the competition than the squad in 2019 and certainly the one in 2011, he said.
Chhteri said he welcomed the ban on imports in state leagues but “it was a Catch-22” when it came to following Stimac’s suggestion that only Indians should be considered for centre-forward positions. Sivasakthi Narayanan, about whom Chhetri said he was sure India will hear a lot about in the next few months, had a breakout season because Bengaluru FC trusted him, he said.
Roy Krishna and Sunil Chhetri sat out games and in all those games, Sivasakthi started. “I know it is an anomaly but if you perform well, the club will not see whether you are a foreign national. Because the club wants to win. The goals will come only if you play but the Indian strikers will also have to work a little harder (unlike say a goalkeeper or full backs or wingers) because they are competing with foreigners. But the club will have to trust them too. Simon (Grayson, the Bengaluru FC coach) did it and look what we got.”
Source: Hindustan Times