Former captain Bhaichung Bhutia has said it will be crucial for talismanic striker Sunil Chhetri to remain fit for India to do well at the Asian Cup next year.
Bhutia was drawing on his experience from the 2011 edition, where he had injured his leg. Consequently, he missed the team’s first two matches against Australia and Bahrain while came on as a second-half substitute in the final group stage match against South Korea. Without Bhutia, India cut a sorry figure and lost all their matches.
Chhetri, like Bhutia, is expected to lead the team at next year’s edition. India are paired along side hosts UAE, Bahrain and Thailand, and Bhutia felt India will need the 33-year-old at his ‘best form and fitness’. “It’s very important for us to keep Sunil fit,” Bhutia said. “I’ve gone through that experience (of getting injured). Once you cross 30, it’s nature that with the physical game players tend to get injured when you play at that high intensity. But you need Sunil in the best form and fitness at the Asian Cup.”
India failed to qualify for the 2015 Asian Cup but qualified for next an expanded edition, which will be played next January, by topping their group in the third qualification round. Chhetri, the country’s highest-ever scorer with 56 goals, was instrumental in the team’s success, having scored four times in the six matches – including winners against Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan.
Without him in the squad, though, India have struggled. During the tri-nations tournament in August last year, India just about managed to beat Mauritius and were held to a draw by St Kitts & Nevis – both lower-ranked teams. Chhetri had missed the tournament as he was recovering from an injury.
Bhutia pointed out that Chhetri’s experience, too, will be crucial as he is the only player in the squad who has played at the Asian Cup. “He will have to share his experience of playing at such a high level,” Bhutia said. “The team will be sharing team hotels with some of the big names of Asian football, so they’ll need someone to help them relax, feel confident and motivated. The other players will also have to step up, and Sunil will have to guide them.”
Preparation for the Asian Cup begins in June, when the Indians play host to Kenya, Chinese Taipei and New Zealand in a four-way competition. Beyond that though, Bhutia asserted the team will need to get sufficient game-time abroad. “Now we need to focus on playing outside India because that’s a very different experience,” he said. “The tournament will happen in UAE, so they can play (friendly) matches in Dubai against the (local) clubs. They can start training there so that at least psychologically, you’re aware and you feel that you know the place, the ground and you know the climate.”
The footballer-turned-politician, though, is optimistic of the team’s chances of making it to the knockout stage, given the group they’ve been placed in. “I think we are lucky because we don’t have any of the super powers of Asia,” he said. “I’m personally very happy with the group, but it still won’t be easy because this is the Asian Cup. We will have to work hard, but it is a group we can qualify from.”