Chhetri warns India against Asian Cup complacency
At the draw ceremony for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, India's captain Sunil Chhetri appeared to have picked the best group possible for his team.
After all, India's opponents, alongside hosts UAE, are two sides - Thailand and Bahrain - placed below them in the FIFA rankings. It seemed like the latest bit of positive news, as Indian football appears to be in a good place at the moment. The country is inside the top 100 of the world rankings and only recently saw a 13-match unbeaten streak end.
Chhetri, a veteran of 97 international caps, remains guarded about India's prospects. Having been a part of the squad that played against giants South Korea and Australia at the 2011 Asia Cup, he doesn't buy for instance the notion that India are in a favourable pool.
"If you are being optimistic because of the way we are playing, then it is ok. But do not be mistaken thinking our opponents are going to be Thailand, Bahrain and UAE. If you have watched Thailand over the past few years, you would know they are the most improved side in Asia," he said.
"They've drawn 2-2 with Australia at home so they are not a bad team. If people are thinking it is going to be easy for us just because we didn't meet Australia and South Korea, then no it's not going to be like that."
Chhetri, 33, doesn't' think the current rankings or the team's recent unbeaten run will have much of an impact in their performances in Dubai either.
"I haven't ever taken rankings seriously. I'm happy that we have broken inside the top 100 but the way it works is very tricky. I can't give too much importance to it. I am happy with the kind of performances that we have put, but at the Asia Cup, we are talking about a different stage and a different level of competition. I don't think it will help us to talk about what we did in the last two years."
Chhetri feels the current side has challenges that the previous bunch to play the Asia Cup didn't.
"In 2011, we had an established team where all the players were playing in the national team at least for three or four years. Youngsters like me could learn from Steven, Gourmangi and Renedy. It was an already settled team," he said. The current squad in contrast is still a work in progress.
"Right now we have a lot of youngsters in the team. Apart from me and Jeje to some extent, there are mostly youngsters in the team. Everyone is young and dynamic but the 2011 team was more solid. The players knew each other and their role. But I hope these young boys can grab onto the chances they will get."
The opportunity, Chhetri admits, is immense. "We have got to the first stage (qualification for the AFC Cup), the challenge will be to stay there. Right now we are in the top 15 in Asia. The top five teams in Asia compete at the World Cup. Right now we need to get into the top 10 of Asia to play these top five teams and also to know how far we are. It is a long journey for us. We are going in the right direction but the pace is slow."
With six months to go before the competition, Chhetri says there is little time to waste.
"We have done well at home but we have struggled in away matches. It will be challenging to win away games at the Asian Cup. I just hope in the next six months we get more away games.
"We need to test ourselves against better opponents because what we are facing is some of the best sides in Asia. We have to give ourselves the best chance and then all 11 of us on the field need to be at our best. That way we can put up a fight and then see what happens."