Gurugram, May 6 (IANS) : With India back in the AFC Asian Cup after a gap of eight years, captain Sunil Chhetri believes his side will face a tough challenge in the league stage of the tournament which starts on January 5 next year. India, who are clubbed in Group A alongside hosts United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and South-East Asian giants Thailand, will make their fourth appearance in the Asian Cup.
After finishing as runners-up in 1964, India were ousted from the group stages in the 1984 and 2011 editions of the tournament and have finally made it to the continental competition after eight years. Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of an event organised by Kia Motors to select kids as the official match ball carriers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Chhetri said: “We will try to get as many points from the first game and will then think about the second game.”
Indian football has witnessed an upsurge over the last couple of years. They are currently ranked 15th in Asia and had recently broken into the top 100 in the world rankings after a long gap thanks to a 13-match unbeaten streak. Chhetri however, warned that despite their recent good form, it will be an uphill task for his boys in the group stage of the competition.
India will kick-off their AFC Asian Cup campaign on January 6 against Thailand and Chhetri felt that the south-east Asian nation may prove to be a stern test for the Indians.
“If people think it will be easier as we are doing well, it is a valid point. But do not be mistaken that it is just Thailand, Bahrain and UAE. Just because we will not meet Australia and South Korea again, it will not be easy,” Chhetri expressed.
“They (people) think it will be an easy outing for us against Thailand or other group teams, but it won’t be at all. Thailand is the most improved Asian nation in the last six years,” the 33-year-old added.
Explaining further, the skipper said: “Last time we played a 2-2 draw against Thailand six-seven years back. Now look at them (Thailand), they are competing with the best Asian teams.”
“The most important thing for us is how well we prepare. We all will have to be at our best,” he added.
Although India are currently ranked 97th in the FIFA rankings, the skipper said whatever his side achieved in the past will not help the team in the future and he does not take rankings too seriously.
“I never take rankings seriously. I am happy that we are under 100 but the way it (rankings) work is very tricky,” Chhetri added.
The Bengaluru FC skipper also said that his prime focus now is to win games for India outside the country as they have performed fairly well at home.
“We have struggled away so, I want to have more games outside to test our strengths,” Chhetri said.
The skipper also opined that domestic tournaments like the Indian Super League (ISL) and the Super Cup — which has replaced the Federation Cup from this season — help to bring new talent into the national side.
“The better these leagues perform, the better it is for the national coach to choose players,” Chhetri said.
Chhetri, who led his side to victory in the Super Cup, however said that losing the ISL summit clash against Chennaiyin FC hurt him and his side as they paid the price for their own mistakes.
“After dominating everyone, topping the group stage and losing the finals because of two corners, which was our own mistake, it still hurts,” the Bengaluru FC skipper rued.
“The two corners still haunt us,” he added.