16 fixtures, 31 months: India’s journey to AFC Asian Cup main draw

The national team started its campaign in March 2015, with a first round victory over Nepal. There have been hiccups along the way, but India has pulled through to make the main draw

Indian players celebrate the victory over Macau that ensured the team’s passage into AFC Asian Cup main draw.   -  PTI

India Head Coach Stephen Constantine admitted on Wednesday that his wards had taken the “longest possible route” to qualify for the 2019 UAE AFC Asian Cup. The national team started its campaign in March 2015, with a first round victory over Nepal. A good 31 months later, it has secured a main draw spot. The journey has been long and arduous.

There have been hiccups along the way. The second round, which doubled up as a 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification round, did not go to plan. Placed alongside Iran, Oman, Turkmenistan and Guam, India only managed to win one of eight outings, and finished at the bottom of Group ‘D’.

With the World Cup dream shut down, the side entered the play-off round to keep its Asian hopes alive. A 7-1 thrashing of Laos was enough to progress to the third and final round. Here, the unit came into its own, recording four wins in as many matches. The most recent victory — a 4-1 thumping of Macau in Bengaluru — assured the team of safe passage to the Asian Cup main draw, with two games to spare.

READ: Udanta and Chhetri combine to help India beat Myanmar

In all, India has had to compete in 16 fixtures to get here. A relieved Constantine remarked after the Macau win, “We took the longest possible route to qualify. In this time period, I’ve demanded a lot from the boys, and they have delivered.”

It must be noted that 2018 AFC Asian Cup field has been increased to 24 teams, from the 16-team format used in 2004 to 2015. That India benefited greatly from this expansion is beyond reasonable doubt.

Much of the credit for India’s qualification must go to Sunil Chhetri. The 33-year-old appears to be getting sharper and fitter as the years roll by.   -  PTI

  Be that as it may, much of the credit for India’s qualification must go to Sunil Chhetri. The 33-year-old appears to be getting sharper and fitter as the years roll by. This was most evident in a tough third-round battle against Kyrgyz Republic. The faster, more physical Central Asian side had the wood on India for a majority of the contest, and looked set to gain three points. An energetic Chhetri, not one to give up the ghost, pulled the team past the finish line with an electric, match-winning goal in the second-half.

Constantine: 'This team is one of the best Indian teams in history'

Chhetri has seven goals in the tournament – the highest among Indians. Jeje Lalpekhlua is not far behind, with five goals. In defence, the sturdy Sandesh Jhingan has established himself as the nation’s premier centre-back. The Chandigarh-born footballer is not afraid to charge at advancing forwards, and uses his tall frame to muscle rivals out of the box. Jhingan is a typical no-nonsense defender, preferring to launch a safe clearance over making cute passes in pressure situations. Between Jhingan and first-choice goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh, the Indian goal is well protected.

Every one of the players who take the field in UAE will have to be at their very best, if India is to make a mark. Even though the draw is not out yet, the side is sure to face more than a few higher-ranked Asian heavyweights. It would be a considerable achievement if India manages to eke out one win in its group matches.

In the 2011 edition, the unit was whipped by Australia (0-4), Bahrain (2-5) and South Korea (1-4). Despite the heavy defeats, Chhetri explained that the experience was worth its weight in gold. "When I played in 2011, we didn’t know what to expect. We took on Bahrain, Australia and South Korea. It's sad, but after that, we haven't got the chance to face them again. That is why it is so important to qualify for big tournaments like this. It gives us the chance to test ourselves against strong opponents. You don’t know when you might get the chance again," Chhetri said.

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