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AFC Asian Cup qualifiers: Overdependence on Sunil Chhetri and goalscoring the biggest worry for India-Sports News , Firstpost

Former India football Gouramangi Singh and ex-Kerala Blasters player Darren Caldeira weigh in on what India can do to address their goalscoring problems.

Sunil Chhetri and Indian football team players during a training session. Image: AIFF Media

Indian men’s football team head coach Igor Stimac has announced that he has no doubt India will be playing in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup. The national team is currently camped in Kolkata preparing for the final round of qualifiers.

They are pitted against Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Hong Kong in Group D of the qualifiers with matches starting on June 8 in Kolkata. India at 106 in FIFA rankings are the highest-ranked team in the group followed by Hong Kong (147), Afghanistan (150) and Cambodia (171) and that makes them the firm favourites to top the group and qualify for the 2023 event. However, there’s an underlying disquiet given India’s recent goalscoring troubles and over reliance on star striker Sunil Chhetri.

India were also the firm favourites at the 2021 SAFF Championship but a total of just one goal in the first two matches against lowly-ranked Bangladesh and Sri Lanka pushed Stimac’s side to the brink of elimination. It was a Chhetri goal in the next match that helped India save their face. The 37-year-old went on to score in all the remaining matches as India won the championship. In the friendlies against Bahrain and Belarus in March this year, in the absence of Chhatri, India lost both the games scoring just one goal.

So, Stimac, is no doubt confident India will reach the final stages of the Asian Cup but goalscoring issues are a potential bottleneck and that’s why he is delighted with Chhetri’s return from injury for the upcoming matches. The coach was effusive in Chhetri’s praise and labelled him the “main force” for the Indian striking department.

On the wrong side of the 30s, Chhetri continues to be one of the strong pillars of the set-up but if recent years are taken into account, he isn’t the same force as he was a couple of years back. The magic is very much on display in the national jersey but scoring rate at the club level has come down significantly, besides fitness also being an issue at times.

In the 2019-20 season, he scored nine goals in 17 Indian Super League matches for Bengaluru FC. In the last two seasons, he has got 12 in 40 matches with only four coming in the last season. The lack of consistent goalscorers is a byproduct of India’s insufficient footballing structure and thus the national team is in the need of Plan B now more than ever.

But what could that be?

Former India footballer Gouramangi Singh feels the focus cannot be on individuals and that Stimac must focus on tactics that would allow the team have the upper hand against any opposition.

“Scoring has been a problem because we don’t have a consistent scorer other than Sunil Chhetri…but we have to look at the bigger picture. There are two ways to look at it. Are we going to only see the problem? Or are we going to look for the solutions? We cannot produce strikers overnight, it’s a long process. It’s the tactical front on which we can only work right now,” says the former Chennaiyin FC player.

“Coach Igor Stimac has given opportunities to different players and now has to work with what he has. The best that Stimac can do is to have his team ready for goal scoring opportunities. So that when the opportunities come, we have enough numbers in the right positions.”

AFC Asian Cup qualifiers Overdependence on Sunil Chhetri and goalscoring the biggest worry for India

India will hope to Manvir Singh (right) score a few goals. Twitter/@IndianFootball

Support cast must step up

Ex-Mohun Bagan footballer Darren Caldeira says that Chhetri remains indispensable to the side but the supporting cast including that of Manvir Singh and Sahal Abdul Samad needs to step up for India.

“Genuinely feel that Chhetri has to start for India. We still don’t have someone who scores consistently for India but Chhetri has been doing that and he has still got the legs. Of course, he has not been as effective in the recent ISL season but he is a different player in the national jersey. He should definitely be starting upfront and alongside players like Manvir Singh who is doing well and can play with him. You got Liston (Colaco), and Udanta (Singh) on the wings. It has to be a collective effort, you can’t always only rely on Chhetri. We saw Sahal (Abdul Samad) do so well in ISL recently. He needs to step up for the national team. There’s enough quality in the team and everyone needs to step up and not just rely on Chhetri,” says the commentator.

“We are doing the right things but are lacking that quality in the final third. That’s what makes Chhatri stands out. That is why I say everyone needs to step up. There’s quality. It’s just about keeping things simple and execution. Manvir plays a winger for the club and as a striker for the national team for which he has been doing well. He is a player who can score goals. Anirudh Thapa offers a lot going forward and defensively also he puts in a big shift. He could be an important player.”

India have had a sea change in their style of play under Stimac since the Stephen Constantine era. Though it hasn’t been all hunky-dory. At times, India have struggled to play the possession-based style, and at times they have lacked a distinct identity. The pressure of expectations could sow the seeds of doubt in Stimac’s mind but Darren feels India will take the field in the qualifiers to play attacking football.

“There are players who can keep the ball. Playing from the back is difficult against higher ranked players and if that doesn’t happen you play in a direct manner. Looking at the opposition everyone is expecting at least decent football from India. Expecting them to keep the ball, create opportunities and score goals. The long camp and the upcoming practice games should help the team,” says the former Kerala Blasters player.

Gouramangi reasserts that taking the game to the opposition is India’s best chance.

“Chances of you getting a goal is higher when you have the bodies in the box. The process is in the hand of the coach, the outcome isn’t. So the focus should be on that process so that we have players trained to create opportunities, whether they take the opportunity or not will come down to individual qualities, and do we have those strikers? That is a different question. And strikers cannot be produced in the national camp. Coach can only train them that they make opportunities and are ready to get to the end of the crosses and through balls.”

All said and done India are firm favourites to qualify from the group. The final round of qualifiers has six groups and even the top five second-placed teams will reach the final stage. Gouramangi is confident India will top the group and should prevail without hiccups.

“On paper, we will one of the strong teams in the group but we can only say this out loud when we beat the teams. In the recent past, we have done well against these teams and they have also done well against us. But I strongly believe that we have a good chance of topping this group. Football is a funny game, and anything can happen. We shouldn’t take anything lightly, but we have a good chance.”

He also has a word of advice on how India can address the striking issues in the long term

“We have 11 teams in the top division ISL. I would love to see it have 14 or 16 teams in the future. We need to have an 8-9 months long domestic season with players playing at least 35-40 matches. That should be our target for the next few years. You need to be playing matches every week to have good players. Everyone has to come in together for this, all the stakeholders, and I hope this happens soon,” says Gouramangi.

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