India eye goals in Sunil Chhetri’s 150th international appearance

PTI, Mar 25, 2024, 2:03 PM IST

Milestone man Sunil Chhetri will be the cynosure of all eyes as India hope to overcome their struggles in front of the goal in the return leg of the 2026 FIFA World Cup Qualifier against Afghanistan here on Tuesday.

Igor Stimac’s India fired a blank in a disappointing draw in the away leg Group A match in Abha, Saudi Arabia on March 22 against their lower-ranked opponents, extending their goalless run. India last scored a goal in November 2023 against Kuwait. In this backdrop, it will be imperative from India’s point of view that Chhetri, who will be appearing in his 150th international match, rises to the occasion and make his landmark game memorable at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium. Having played his first International in 2005, he has so far earned 149 international caps, 93 goals and 11 trophies for the country, and his team would be too happy to see him score one more time, lead them to victory and brighten their prospects of reaching the third round of the World Cup qualifications, something they have not achieved. While Chhetri has always looked to deliver what is expected of him, his teammates understand it is not fair to rely only on a 39-year-old talisman and they will need to chip in with useful contributions if the 58-ranked side is to excel and stay in the reckoning for a place in the third round.

Stimac has prioritised qualification to the third round of World Cup Qualifiers and secure a direct entry into the 2027 AFC Asian Cup but with his team coming off a disappointing campaign in the last continental showpiece, the Croatian will be under pressure and will want his wards to show a lot more desperation, composure and urgency upfront.

The Blue Tigers currently stand second in the group with four points from three games, one ahead of Kuwait, who are on three points from as many matches.

India can still advance to the third round but the task has got a lot tougher following last week’s stalemate, from which they gained only a point.

India will need at least four points from their next three matches – against Afghanistan (Tuesday), Kuwait (June 6) and Qatar (June 11) to remain in control of their fate.

Stimac hoped that Chhetri could make his landmark match all the more special with a performance befitting his stature in Indian football.

”Being chosen to represent your country is a dream of millions of kids when they start kicking the ball, and to make it 150 times is possible only for the GOATs (greatest of all times),” said Stimac. ”We hope our captain will make it memorable on March 26 for all Indian fans and himself.” Stimac tried out almost all options upfront in the first leg but they did not work, and a goal eluded the team.

He admitted that the team needs improvements in a few areas especially while attacking, and was not happy with the manner in which his wards complicated things instead of keeping them smile in the final third.

”We need to be better in passing, creating chances and attacking the box when the crosses are coming from the flanks,” he said. The Blue Tigers had last played in Guwahati five years ago, when they suffered a 1-2 defeat at the hands of Oman in the 2022 FIFA World Cup and 2023 AFC Asian Cup preliminary joint qualifiers. Match starts at 7pm IST.

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