The India U-17 men’s national football team, a win away from entering the AFC U-17 Asian Cup, will be looking to get the job done in the last qualifier against host Saudi Arabia at the Prince Mohammed Bin Fahd Stadium in Dammam on Sunday.
Placed in Group D of the qualifiers, both Saudi Arabia and India have won three matches each so far to pocket nine points. The host is, however, at the top of the table, courtesy of a better goal difference.
“We have watched Saudi play, and we know their level, and what is required of us. The boys are really motivated ahead of this last match, so it’s up to us now to get the job done,” said head coach Bibiano Fernandes on the eve of the match.
A total of 43 teams are participating in the qualifiers across 10 groups. Each group topper will make it to the AFC U-17 Asian Cup 2023, while six of the best second-placed teams across the groups will also join them in the finals.
Since a few of the groups have only three teams, only the points scored against the top three teams in each group will be taken into consideration while calculating the six best second-placed teams.
Anything other than a win for Bibiano’s boys would have them depend on proceedings from other group fixtures. “We are aware of the equation, but for us, there is only one aim. And that is to finish top. That’s the best way to guarantee qualification, and that’s what we will set out to do,” said Fernandes. “We don’t want to depend on others for our qualification. It’s simple really... we follow the process, we fight, and we win. That’s the best scenario for us.”
Fernandes had guided two previous batches to the tournament proper (known as the AFC U-16 Championship in 2018 and 2020), and will be looking to achieve the same for the third time in a row. However, the larger aim remains the same – to make the semifinals of the main competition and qualify for the FIFA U-17 World Cup.
“The boys know what is at stake and are really motivated to get the job done. Qualifying for the U-17 Asian Cup is just the first step, but the ultimate goal is to reach the World Cup on merit,” said Fernandes. “While we chase larger goals, it is also important that we take it step by step. Back-to-back qualification in Asia means that three batches get that extra exposure and experience before they move on to the bigger things, and are subsequently better placed later on in their careers.”
The 45-year-old also encouraged all the fans in Saudi Arabia to come to the stadium and support the boys in the last qualification match .“We did not come to Saudi with the expectation that we would get much support from the stands, so when we saw a number of fans cheering us, it was a really pleasant surprise. That really motivated the boys,” he said.
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