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Blue Tigers: Through ebb and flow

The Indian football team is up for a formidable challenge with the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in clear sight. For a team that has traversed the most tumultuous journey, what could be the new vision? Sunil Chhetri discusses with Aditya K Halder.

In the midst of the ongoing frenzy surrounding the Indian Premier League, the 2019 AFC Asian Cup draw took place in Dubai last week. It was a nerve-wracking moment for football lovers, as India placed in Pot 3, were looking to evade the Asian giants – Iran, Australia (member of AFC since 2006), Japan, South Korea among others.
The Blue Tigers had lady luck by their side as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Thailand were drawn as their counterparts in Group A. Much to the relief of the Indian football fraternity, the Sunil Chhetri-led side was happy to not be pegged against the likes of Australia and Japan, as had happened in 2011. The wild-card entrants were humbled by both the Asian champions in Qatar as the Indian team conceded 13 goals in the group stages.
After finishing last in the group stages of the integrated second round of the 2019 Asia Cup and the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, the blue-clad men topped the third round by winning four of their six matches. This performance paved the way for India's direct qualification to the premier continental competition after missing the last edition.
In January, the boys will face teams below them in ranking, except for hosts UAE (ranked 81). Indian skipper Chhetri, however, advised against reading into the rankings. "I am happy with our performance in the recent past. But, I don't give too much importance to FIFA rankings. We have broken inside the top-100, but the way the rankings work is very tricky. What we have to deal with is a much bigger stage," said the 34-year-old striker.
Correctly so; Manager Stephen Constantine will have their task cut out as they open their campaign against a new and improved Thailand side, who made a strong case by topping the second round ahead of Iraq. The War Elephants, however, were no match for the big teams in the third phase and failed to win all their matches in a group that consisted of mighty Japan and Australia.
On the other hand, UAE will be a tougher nut to crack in their own backyard. The host nation, in addition to their ranking superiority, would eye for the top of the group and secure an easy victory against an Indian side they have historically dominated (by winning eight of the ten matches played).
Known for his eye for details, the Indian skipper is aware of the quality their opponents possess. "If you say it can be easier because we are doing well that can be a valid point. But we can't say it is UAE, Thailand and Bahrain and so it is easier. Only because we are not facing Australia and South Korea people think it's going to be easy. It is not," Chhetri said.
"UAE is ahead of us and they are playing at home. Thailand is the most improved side in Asia in the last six years. We played against Thailand six-seven years ago and it was a 2-2 draw. They are competing with the best in Asia. Australia and Japan are fumbling to beat Thailand," he added.
Nonetheless, things are not entirely dim for the dark horses. The Stephen Constantine-led side has been displaying strong performances in the national circuit as they piled up a 13-match unbeaten streak that ended in March after losing 2-1 to Kyrgyzstan in the Asian qualifiers.
The glorious run wasn't without its fair share of controversies as the English coach, in his second stint with the Indian football team, was often rumoured to be at loggerheads with certain players. Constantine was also recently accused of not attending the domestic league matches often, as many Indian players such as Adil Khan (Pune City FC), Rahul Bheke (Bengaluru FC), among others, were overlooked despite their consistent performance in the national circuit. The 55-year-old gaffer has also faced the allegation of not nurturing enough youth players in the Indian squad despite his claims of having 11 U-23 players in the selection. His pragmatic approach of defending in numbers and waiting to hit on the counter with a lack of proficiency received the flak of fans as #ConstantineOut trended on Twitter during India's recent loss against the Kyrgyz in Bishek.
Skipper Chhetri, however, backed the national coach who was handed an annual contract extension by the All Indian Football Federation. "I think Constantine has done really well for us. His formations and the way he wants to play is different. He has given a lot of chances to youngsters. When he came, many seniors had left or were about to leave. He has done really well in giving many players their deserved break," Chhetri said.
About the trolls on social media against Constantine, India's first-choice striker added: "Till the time, we are together as a team, right from our gaffer Constantine to whoever is in the team, we try to give our best and not pay heed to the negativity. It happens a lot, it's a social media world now. It happens and it will keep happening."
With less than six months left to go for the continental championship, the Blue Tigers would require matches against quality opponents to match the high-quality football that is expected to be at disposal in Dubai in January. Chhetri suggested his team should play bigger opponents away from home comfort to test their strength in unfamiliar conditions.
"What I'm looking forward to is winning games outside the country. Our home record is fairly good but outside home, we have really struggled. I just hope, in the next six months, we get more away games against much better opponents so that we can test ourselves. What we are facing is the best in Asia," he said.
As per the current available fixture, there are no away matches scheduled by the AIFF but they will face a worthy-competitor in New Zealand, at home turf, among other less formidable teams including Chinese Taipei, Sri Lanka and Kenya in the Intercontinental Cup in Mumbai during the first week of June.
Brimming with confidence after the recent run of form, the prolific striker seemed optimistic about the future of the team as he aimed to be among the top 10 teams of Asia. "Our primary motive is to be something good in Asia and we are at the 15th position. The first five teams in Asia play in the World Cup. Our realistic dream is to be in the first 10; we made the right steps in the right direction, our pace is slow, but we will work hard to get there. The end is far, but we are moving," Chhetri concluded.
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