Nikhil Poojari, Hitesh Sharma looking to make the most of SAFF Championships

India begins its SAFF championship campaign on September 5, against Sri Lanka in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Atletico de Kolkata's Hitesh Sharma in action against Chennaiyin FC   -  ISL

The upcoming SAFF Championships will be a testing ground for the India U-23 football team which is gearing up to defend its title at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium here. The 45-day training camp, leading up to the tourney in September, is being conducted under the aegis of head coach Stephen Constantine, who ensuring his wards are ready for the ‘high intensity games’ to follow.

It represents a “great opportunity” for young players to make a mark, according to 22-year-old forward Nikhil Poojari and 20-year-old midfielder Hitesh Sharma, members of the squad selected for the camp.

“It’s good for us. We can prove ourselves; maybe some of us will play the AFC Asian Cup in 2019,” Poojari said on the sidelines of a training session on Monday. “The medical team is working on every player; after every session, they are there. Till 12 am, they work for us. It’s a different atmosphere here,” he added.

Poojari, who signed up with FC Pune City last month, is keen to return to action after an injury – a ligament tear on his left leg – ahead of the 2017-18 I-League season kept him out for eight months. It cut short what would have been his second season with East Bengal.

“[The comeback] was difficult. But now, after training with [the U-23 team] for a week, I feel good. The SAFF championship will be my opportunity to prove myself again, because this injury was for long, I was out [for the best part of] one year. I’m glad they have taken me and brought me back to the field now,” he said.

For Hitesh, who shone for ATK in his debut season in 2017-18, the training camp and the SAFF championship represents a chance to gain the nuances of adaptability and sharpen skills for “a long career.”

“It is a great opportunity to improve, and to play for the national team. I hope I perform well in the coming matches,” he said. “All coaches are different because they use different styles of play. The player who can adjust to every situation with every coach is good,” he added.

The range of these “situations” would have increased for budding stars since the inception of the Indian Super League (ISL), with access to foreign coaches and their training methods. For now, though, the coach “wants everyone to push themselves” as much as they can, specified Pujari.

India begins its SAFF championship campaign on September 5, against Sri Lanka in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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