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Won’t let Sunil Chhetri go till he scores 100 goals: Igor Stimac

“I won’t let Sunil go before he scores 100 goals.” With that India head coach Igor Stimac sought to end short and medium-term speculation about the future of his captain who is 17 short of century going into Tuesday’s Asian Cup final round qualifier in Kolkata against Hong Kong. “That (100 international goals) is the minimum,” said Stimac at Monday’s pre-match media conference with Sunil Chhetri sat alongside looking impassive.

Only two players, Cristiano Ronaldo (117) and Iran’s Ali Daei (109), have done that in the history of football. Chhetri is one behind Ferenc Puskas, who is fifth on the list, three short of Lionel Messi’s 86 goals and six shy of Malaysia’s Mokhtar Dahari. Among the top six, only Chhetri, Ronaldo and Messi are still playing.

Stimac then referred to Roger Milla scoring in World Cup finals in his forties—the Cameroon legend scored one at 42, the oldest player to do that—and said: “I am getting the feeling that he can do it too.” This came near the end of the interaction but after Stimac, in another context, had spoken of being a clairvoyant in matters football. “He has the muscles, the body, the commitment and family support to go that far so you need to stop asking about replacing him.” 

AFC Asian Cup qualifiers: Hong Kong beams with confidence after consecutive wins

On six points after two wins, India and Hong Kong kick off the final match of group D at Salt Lake stadium after groups B and E finish. Should Palestine (6 points) beat Philippines (4 points) in group B, being played in Mongolia, India and group leaders Hong Kong will qualify for the Asian Cup finals before kick-off. They will also qualify before the 8:30pm kick-off if Bahrain (6 points) beat Turkmenistan (3 points) and Bangladesh (0 points) surprise hosts Malaysia (3 points) in group E.

Should the India-Hong Kong game end in a draw, both teams would be assured of a final round berth.

There are 24 teams in six groups in the final round of the qualifiers with the group winners and five best second teams making the 24-team Asian Cup finals.

“There is less pressure but not less hunger. We are not doing any math. We are fully concentrated on winning the game against Hong Kong,” said Stimac. That has not happened since 1993, India having managed one draw (2-2 in 2006) and lost friendlies 2-1 in 2009 and 0-1 in 2010 since, according to 11v11.com.

As a team, India work on “forgetting” previous games, “especially if they haven’t gone our way,” said Chhetri. “We need to do that now. That’s very important because we really want to win this game.”

Saturday’s 2-1 win against Afghanistan, with the winner coming in the 91st minute, should be the point of reference for his team in the future, said Stimac. That “attitude”, “hunger” and “passion” is what we want from our team, he said. “We may have less muscles but we have a big heart.” When India are playing at home, Stimac said, the opponents must know that “this is where we dictate so be well aware where you are coming and respect the place you are coming to.”

The win has also given him a headache. One he loves. Stimac said he doesn’t know whom to leave out. A decision on the starting 11 will be taken following Wednesday’s medical screening, he said. “We need fresh legs so we need to be reasonable.” Chhetri said credit must be given to the “very able” support staff of two masseurs and physio Gigi George, who has been with the India team for 10 years, who have kept players ready for three games in six days. “We will make sure that all of us are available so that the coach has a headache.”

Asked to compare his free-kick goal on Saturday with the one in 2013 SAFF Championship against Bangladesh, where he kept India in the competition with virtually the last kick of the game, Chhetri said he would rate the one against Afghanistan higher. “This is more recent and without meaning any disrespect to the SAFF, this was in the Asian Cup qualifiers.” Chhetri said he doesn’t take free-kicks anymore because Roshan Naorem, Brandon Fernandes and Liston Colaco are very good at it but took them on Saturday “because he was feeling good about it.”

Soon after, Afghanistan equalised. Stimac said that on realising that the near post was “empty”, he knew if Afghanistan swung a right-foot corner, the ball would be in a place where there was no Indian and “as soon as the words came out my mouth,” they scored.

Chhetri has three goals in two games. Hong Kong striker Matt Orr has two. In both games in Kolkata, Hong Kong have played with Orr as the sole striker with skipper Huang Yang sat in front of the back four and Wong Wai helping Yang mop up. “Hong Kong deserve to be winning the group now. They are a well-organised, disciplined side with enough quality in attack and defence. But we know what we need to do,” said Stimac.

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