Talismanic captain Sunil Chhetri will return to the national team during next month’s Asian Cup qualifiers and head coach Igor Stimac is confident that the country will win the tournament and book a ticket for the continental showpiece in China next year.
The 37-year-old Chhetri will return to action after six months, having last played for India during their 3-0 win over Nepal in the SAFF Championships final in October.
Stimac said Chhetri is back to his full fitness and will be the “main force and strength” of the team.
“Sunil is still here, he’s still in great shape,” Stimac said when asked how long Chhetri can prolong his career.
“We didn’t involve him in Bahrain and Belarus games because he needed time to recover from some minor problems he was facing throughout the last couple of years.
“That time has served very well to Sunil. He has recovered very well. He’s showing that on the training pitch every day and still at this point he will be the main force and strength of the Indian national team up front.” Chhetri had suffered minor niggles and missed out of the friendlies against Belarus and Bahrain in March.
Stimac also said young forward Rahim Ali, who will be out of action for at least six weeks due to an injury, will be a big loss.
“I feel very sorry that Rahim Ali who in the recent past created a great partnership with Sunil. He was someone who was making Sunil’s life much easier up front and doing a great job to be honest, bringing players to his back and leaving Sunil open and free there on the other side,” he said. “He was showing great game improvement.
Most of the last season he played with this injury on his abductors and now that became chronic and that will keep him out for six-seven weeks.” Focus would be on Stimac after his contract was extended till September 2022 with an eye on the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.
“Expectations are always there. I’m very confident that the work we are providing here and at least this time, we had enough time to prepare well, never mind that some of the players are not with us,” the 54-year-old said during a virtual interaction.
“We have enough quality in our team with the players who are here with us to make sure that India qualifies and that’s what we’re going to do. I see India in the final stages and there is no doubt about it. We’re going to have great support in the stands here.” India will now play two practice games — against ATK Mohun Bagan (Wednesday) and I-League all stars (May 17) before flying to Doha to play two more friendlies against Zambia (May 25) and Jordan (May 28) in the build up to the Asian qualifiers.
“This is a far better situation than in the previous games when we got the players one or two days prior to the games then there is nothing you can do there.
“This is finally something which is giving me as a coach the opportunity to prepare well for the games you know which was not the case in the previous cases,” Stimac said.
India, who are the highest-ranked side (106) in group D, will face Hong Kong (147), Afghanistan (150) and Cambodia (171) in a one-legged final round of qualifiers beginning here on June 8.
“That (ranking) doesn’t mean anything. Whatever is there you need to earn it on the pitch throughout 90 minutes. The way you prepare your team mentally and physically that will make the difference when the day comes,” he said.
Thirteen teams have already qualified and another 11 spots — six group toppers and five best runners-up — are up for grabs during the final phase in June.
“… I’m interested in the final result in a way that we qualify for the Asian Cup. That’s our aim. I don’t mind how many points or how many goals we score. Our aim is to qualify.
“Of course, if we make it if we make three wins, that would be fantastic. That’s what we are aiming for. But my aim is to qualify.” On Sandesh Jhingan’s availability, Stimac said they would monitor the progress of the star India central defender during ATK Mohun Bagan’s AFC Cup group matches beginning on May 18.
“We’re going to follow ATK (Mohun Bagan) players throughout the competition and we’ll see who is in form and who is not.
“The competition in the team is strong. I strongly believe that we have enough quality here and whoever is here we’re going to make our job done,” he concluded.