EXCLUSIVE | India Can Dream of AFC Asian Cup Knockouts if They Beat Thailand: Bhutia
Despite the lack of games against competitive Asian sides, Bhaichung Bhutia believes the Indian football team can look forward to booking a berth in the second round of the AFC Asian Cup 2019 should they manage to register a win in their opening game against Thailand.
New Delhi: It was a recurring calf muscle injury that had forced Bhaichung Bhutia, India’s most capped international footballer, to miss all but fifteen odd minutes of his side’s AFC Asian Cup campaign in 2011. Grouped then with eventual semi-finalists Australia and South Korea and Bahrain, India failed to make an impact.
Eight years later, India - now led by Bhaichung’s strike partner in 2011 Sunil Chhetri - have been grouped with Thailand, Bahrain and hosts UAE for the tournament and the former captain is quietly optimistic about their chances.
In the upcoming edition, 24 teams are part of the expanded continental competition and eight will drop out after the first round.
Stephen Constantine’s side come into this tournament on the back of a title winning campaign in the Intercontinental Cup, where the quality of opposition though was nothing like what’s on offer in UAE.
But they did also manage to get a credible goalless draw against China before losing 2-1 to Jordan then securing another 0-0 result against Oman in a game held behind closed doors.
Before the team left India, the coach had revealed they could not take up an invite for a friendly against Asian powerhouse Iran because it clashed with the game against Oman.
Despite the lack of games against competitive Asian sides, Bhutia believes the team can look forward to booking a berth in the second round should they manage to register a win in their opening game.
“India needs to go one game at a time and if they can beat Thailand then they should dream of the second round. Then the chances are better. But if they lose against them then the chances are over,” Bhutia told News18Sports in an exclusive chat.
"The Thailand game will be tough especially because it is the first game of the tournament and it will set the tone for the rest of the campaign. A good start will give the team a lot of confidence but a bad start could affect the team psychologically."
“The team did well against China and they look confident. It will be tough and they will have to fight hard, but we are somewhat fortunate in terms of the group as compared to the last time.”
The preparation for a tournament of this magnitude has in recent times come under the scanner, especially with the lack of quality opposition that the Indian team has faced. Since achieving qualification in 2017, India has played three friendlies (two draws and a defeat) in 2018 alongside a final qualifier against Kyrgyzstan (lost 1-2), the Intercontinental Cup (winners) and the SAFF Cup (runners-up).
Thus despite his confidence, Bhutia believes the preparation could have been more intense with more games away from home.
“India should have played a few more matches in preparation. A few more games away from home under the belt would’ve helped the side,” the former captain noted while also adding that the overall improved quality of football domestically though is likely to help what is the third youngest side (average age of 25) in UAE.
Gurpreet Must Lead from the Back
While the Indian football legend is optimistic about the Blue Tigers doing well in UAE, he believes Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, his teammate from the 2011 campaign, will have an extremely important role to play if India is to do well this time around.
“Gurpreet will have to guide his defense from the back and get people into the right positions and not make silly mistakes, only then do we have a good chance. He (Gurpreet) will have to lead from the back,” he asserts.
All you need to know about India 🇮🇳 ahead of the #AsianCup2019! pic.twitter.com/M67an9IpVi — #AsianCup2019 (@afcasiancup) December 27, 2018
That the Indian defenders will be among the busiest in the squad is well known and Bhaichung believes there is absolutely no shame in banking on defensive football and winning games on the counter-attack, quite often India’s most potent form of attack.
“When Stephen says that we will be up against stronger and technically better sides so we need to be strong at the back, he is absolutely right and to get a result in that situation the defense has to be tight,” he explains.
“They (India) have to be effective and organised at the back. It might not be attractive football but sometimes to get results you have to do that.”
“This defense is mentally strong and confident. The only negative thing is the lack of experience. At that level the experience can be crucial counts at times. The maturity that comes with experience unfortunately is not enough in comparison to the other teams in the competition,” Bhutia added.
But while Gurpreet did not get any game time in 2011, current skipper Chhetri played all three games back then and even found himself on the scoresheet against South Korea and Bahrain.
Now as the senior most member of the team, Bhaichung feels that Chhetri will not only be very important to India’s goal scoring prospects - Jeje Lalpekhlua, Sumeet Passi and Balwant Singh have worryingly managed only three goals among themselves in the Indian Super League this year - but also must be a guide off the field for the young side.
“Sunil will have a big role off the field because the young players might get overawed or nervous and he must help keep them calm, prepared and confident and ready to give everything. It will be important to make sure the team enjoys the tournament and not feel inferior.”
“At the end of the day when they leave the field they should be able to say they gave it their very best irrespective of the final result,” he signs off before obliging requests for a few photographs in a plush hotel in the heart of the national capital.
India open their campaign on Sunday, January 6 against Thailand, before taking on UAE on January 10 and finally Bahrain on January 14 in the group stages.
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