India will be a difficult team to beat in the Asian Cup football tournament starting Saturday, especially after their recent draws against more fancied China and Oman, said talismanic captain Sunil Chhetri.
The Asian Cup, the continent’s showpiece event, will be played in four cities of the United Arab Emirates from January 5 to February 1.
India have been clubbed in Group A along side Thailand, Bahrain and hosts UAE. They play their first match on Sunday against Thailand here, followed by games against UAE (Abu Dhabi) and Bahrain (Sharjah) on January 10 and 14 respectively.
Ranked 15th in Asia, India played against three quality sides — China, Oman and Jordan — in their build-up to the Asian Cup. The Stephen Constantine-coached side drew goal-less against China and Oman and lost to Jordan 1-2.
China (76th) and Oman (82nd) are ranked higher than India (97th) while Jordan are below a few rungs down at 109th.
“I can assure you that it won’t be an easy job for other teams to face us. We are a team who hate to lose, and we have proven it in recent times. We are working as per the plan,” Chhetri was quoted as saying by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) website.
“All of us are super excited and thrilled right now. Apart from me and Gurpreet (Singh Sandhu), it’s a first-time experience for all else. Everyone is ready to grab this opportunity (of playing in the Asian Cup),” said the skipper, who is set to become the only Indian to feature in two Asian Cup tournaments.
The 34-year-old Chhetri was part of the Indian team that featured in the 2011 edition in Doha where the country lost all their group matches — against Australia, South Korea and Bahrain. Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was in the 2011 squad but did not play any match.
Chhetri, the highest Indian scorer in international football with 65 goals, said his team was focussing solely on the match against Thailand and not looking beyond that.
“At the moment, our sole focus is on our opening fixture — the game against Thailand. We are not looking anything beyond that. Yeah, there are matches against UAE and Bahrain lined up but we will think about them only when they come.
“At the moment we know that Thailand will be a very tough opponent and we are concentrating only on them,” he said.
Chhetri is set to equal former captain Bhaichung Bhutia’s record of all time India appearances during the Asia Cup. He has played 104 international matches so far, only three shy of his ‘mentor’ Bhutia’s record of 107 games.
But, Chhetri said he had never played for records.
“It feels good when I get a record under my name. But I don’t keep track of records. After 10 seconds, I just forget it. I never take any pressure of chasing any record,” he said.
“I never ever dreamt that I would play more than 100 games for India or score 60-odd goals,” Chhetri said.
Talking about Bhutia, Chhetri said, “I have always been a big fan of Bhaichung bhai. Tell me who isn’t? I have learnt so many things from him. He has always been a huge support.”