Keeping skipper Sunil Chhetri fit for Asia Cup is important for India, says Bhaichung Bhutia
Former India Football Team captain Bhaichung Bhutia has said that it is important for the national team to keep Sunil Chhetri fit for the Asia Cup.
After much of struggle during the qualification of AFC Asian Cup, where India ended their campaign with a 2-1 defeat against Kyrgyzstan, the Blue Tiger jotted their place in the 2019 Asia Cup, scheduled from January 2019, and are slotted in Group A, along with UAE, Thailand and Bahrain. A lot will be expected off the current Indian roster, but most importantly, all eyes will be on their skipper, Sunil Chhetri.
Bhaichung on Sunil Chhetri
Being one pivotal figure of Indian football, the 33-year-old will be carrying an encumbrance of taking the nation as high as possible. With a big name comes great responsibility and Sunil is well aware of it. When quipped about the importance of the skipper to the team especially for the Asian Cup, Bhutia said, "It is very important for us to keep Sunil fit because I've gone through this experience (of injuries).
"I think once you cross the 30 mark, it's natural that the players do tend to get injuries. It's not just Sunil; once you play that high-intensity game the injuries occur. Look at Dani Alves of PSG; he has got great medical staff, great medical facilities yet he is still out. So we'll have to make sure he stays out of injury and he stays at his best.
"I think the thing will Sunil is that he has got the experience of Asia Cup and this is what he has to share (with the team)."
AFC Asian Cup
India do not really have a great head to head record against either of the teams slotted in their group (for the Asian Cup). India are currently ranked 97 in the official FIFA rankings and the only team (from their group) above them are UAE, who holds the 81st spot. Meanwhile, the likes of Thailand and Bahrain are 122 and 116 respectively.
India have played UAE 11 times thus far and have only emerged victorious on two occasions. UAE, who are one of the top 10 nations of Asia, will be the firm favourite given that they finished third in the 2015 Asian Cup. Meanwhile, given India's head to head record against Thailand, who will be playing the Asian Games after 12 years, it is safe to say the Blue Tigers need to up their game. They have only registered four victories in 21 games they have played against Thailand.
Bahrain, on the other hand, will be an easy fixture, as they have never progressed beyond the group stage since 2004, where they finished fourth.
Bhutia on Asian Cup
Bhutia, however, was satisfied with the draw and said that India have been lucky to not get any Asian heavyweights.
"I think we are very lucky and happy with the group we've got because we have been able to reach in that ranking bracket to get that group. So, credit to the team that has gone on to reach that ranking to get that group. Also, we've been lucky that we haven't got any superpowers of Asian football who have qualified for the World Cup like Korea, Iran, Iraq, Japan and others.
"But then again, it will not be easy for India. Still, we're quite lucky, lucky than what we got in 2011."
The 2011 Asia Cup
Back in the 2011 Asian Cup, India were slotted alongside Australia, South Korea and Bahrain, and failure to win a single group stage game saw the Blue Tigers being eliminated from the tournament.
"Two (Australia and South Korea) were already in World Cup while Bahrain almost qualified for it (World Cup). So I think compared to the last Asia Cup, we're happy with the group because it's not impossible to qualify. It will be tough, a bit of hard work and we can qualify, but won't be easy."
The Intercontinental Cup
Prior to the Asia Cup, India are all set to play an Intercontinental Cup Competition against the likes of South Africa, New Zealand and Chinese Taipei. Playing these continental heavyweights will be a great experience for the Indian team and Bhutia was of similar thought.
"I think it's a good standard tournament, but as Sunil has said, you need to play matches outside because playing in Indian and playing outside is a completely different experience both physically and mentally as well. That psychological difference between playing at home and away is very different. So I think they now need to play the team from outside which is very important.
"Especially they can play in Dubai because there are a lot of clubs there given the number of matches that are happening in UAE. So they can start playing there so that you are psychologically aware and you start knowing the place, the ground, the climate and everything."
On Stephen Constantine's rotation
Bhutia, when quipped about coach Stephen Constantine's rotational policy, said,
"Now he should start working with having his core set of team members and, obviously, as a coach he would know his most important players and around those 2-3 players he can always experiment. He must be having his team ready in his mind and he will have to start playing with that kind of team and that kind of system regularly. That is an important factor," Bhutia said.
Lastly, the former captain was asked as to what India should aim primarily from the Asia Cup and his answer was subtle.
"I think our primary target should be to get into the second round."