The Indian women’s football team have a few big days coming up as they play the group stage of the AFC Women’s Asian Cup India 2022, starting January 20. India, by virtue of being the hosts, are placed in Group A alongside Iran, Chinese Taipei and China. While Iran are ranked below India in the FIFA rankings, Chinese Taipei and China are both higher-ranked.
Ahead of the opener, coach Thomas Dennerby said in a media interaction on Friday the team is going to be up against three teams, who all have different playing styles. While Iran are compact, Chinese Taipei are fluid and China plays the passing game.
Iran: It is a team that defends very well and have a striker who is always on the run. Dennerby said that the Indian defenders will have to be alert at all times because Iran can catch them on the counter through the striker. The Iranian team is also good with set pieces and so India will have to be careful to not give unnecessary free kicks and corners. India will look to be in control of the game by maintaining possession.
Chinese Taipei: India played them on October 13 last year and won 1-0 with Renu scoring the goal. Dennerby feels it will be an open game since the teams recently played each other. The coach said his team can try and knick this one.
China: China play with a lot of short passes and will be India’s toughest opponents. Dennerby, however, added that China are not at the same level as a couple of years ago and the Indian team will take the field with the aim of winning.
Dennerby announced that all the team members have tested negative for Covid-19. There are no injury concerns within the team and all the 23 players will be available for selection for their tournament opener against Iran.
The Indian team played in a friendly tournament in Brazil in November last year and coach Dennerby feels the intensity and frequency of matches there prepared the girls for the rigours of the Asian Cup.
“Your fitness level has to be high so that you come to each and every game fully focussed and with 100 per cent energy," he said. He added that some of his players played well for a longer duration but one moment of lost focus and they can very well be punished for it.
“Everybody now understands the importance of staying focussed for 90 to 95 minutes, whatever it is, that is most important. We defend well for a long period of time but the last two games in Brazil told us that we need to work on our attacking game and have a bit more confidence with the ball. Hopefully we can be comfortable with the ball and build up play," he expressed.
In the past few months, Dennerby has made the team more compact and developed their understanding of space and positioning. Dennerby has also experimented with a back 5, something that was very unusual for the women’s team. He didn’t have a natural wing back at his disposal and hence, used Sanju Yadav in that position.
Dennerby explained that their experiments but not only for trying but to develop a good picture of how they will play the games. “When you go for such a big tournament, you can have injuries unfortunately then you need all players to be ready, which is why we have made changes. We have a good picture before the first game," he said.
“We have different types of players and that is good for the team. When you play games, you need to be fit and speed and the more runs you can do, the better options to score you will have," he added.
FOCUSSED AND PREPARED
In over 200 sessions in the last five months or more, coach Dennerby has focussed on football, strength and game sense. They have played against tough teams and the ones with a defensive style too.
“We finally think we are really well prepared now. We’ve developed a lot since we started and hopefully, we will see that in the games," Dennerby expressed.
The Indian team are missing two crucial players in defensive midfielder Sangita Basfore and striker Bala Devi but Dennerby said that while it’s sad for the individuals, he would rather focus his energy on the players he has in the squad and put his trust in them.
“To make the quarter-finals is our first target. If we come all the way to the quarter-finals, it is anybody’s game. At that stage everyone plays under pressure. First step we don’t talk much about going further but definitely quarter-finals is our target and I really think it’s realistic," he stated.
Captain Ashalata Devi is responsible for marshalling the squad that has an average age of 23.13 and said that on and off the field, she tries to guide the players and shares with them all about practice and how to be a professional.
Ashalata said that while there is always be pressure, playing in the Asian Cup was a dream for all the players and she wants to see if everyone can put their best foot forward.
“When I was a junior and came into the senior team, there were players like Bembem (Devi) di, Tababi (Devi) di, Bala (Devi) di. Whenever I had a problem, I shared with them and tried to understand things from them. Now, I try to do that with the youngsters in my team. I try to talk to them and make them understand a lot of things," she said.
16-year-old Shilky Devi, on the other hand, was happy about the chance of experience the Asian Cup with the senior team and have a chance to take a lot of learnings.