Saturday, July 13, 2024

Asian Cup Rivals Australia, Uzbekistan Notches Above Us: Sunil Chhetri

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Talismanic captain Sunil Chhetri has no qualms in admitting that India’s group opponents Australia and Uzbekistan are notches above his side in quality but playing against them in the upcoming Asian Cup will be a marker to test the country’s level of the game. Drawn in Group B in the continental showpiece, India face Australia on January 13, before taking on Uzbekistan (January 18) and Syria (January 23). The top two teams from each group along with four best third-place sides from across six groups progress to the knockout stage. “It’s a massive tournament for us, purely because we get to rub shoulders with the best in Asia. Teams like Australia and Uzbekistan are probably of the World Cup level, so you can test yourself against them,” Chhetri said.

“What is sure is that we have improved in the last seven-eight years. But then you play them and you see how far you are, and how the tempo of the game is. It’s just important to play your best, and generally it’s a good marker for the nation to test where we are.” The 39-year-old Chhetri, who is playing in his third Asian Cup, was a part of the team that lost 0-4 to Australia in the group stage of the 2011 edition which was also played here, said the team is better prepared now.

“We did not have much knowledge of the Australian team back then. Not when compared to the minute details we have now. We’ve watched their friendlies against Palestine and Bahrain, we know which leagues their players are in, and individual clips on them,” said Chhetri.

“With this familiarity, the fear factor goes out. I must admit, of course, that they are extremely good. They’re a couple of levels above than what we play in the ISL, but at least we know what we’re up against.” The important thing is not to think too far ahead but to take game-by-game, said Chhetri, who also led the team in the 2019 edition in the UAE where India failed to get past the group stage.

“We will take it one game at a time and try to give a good account of ourselves. We will prepare as much as possible, gather as much knowledge as we possibly can, and then act according to that,” he said.

While Chhetri has scored four goals in his six matches at the Asian Cup, this edition will be an altogether different one for him. Not only is India No. 11 older and wiser, but he also became a father last year.

That may not have changed his perspective on football, but it certainly has changed his outlook on life.

“I’m so much happier and calmer now. It’s like I’ve had a different responsibility and purpose ever since I became a father, it’s something that I can’t explain,” he said.

“I had a chat with my wife about the Asian Cup and the World Cup Qualifiers against Afghanistan later, and it seemed to her that I was taking too much pressure with these matches.

“She told me to just go out there and enjoy. That’s the way I want to play, whatever time I have left with the national team.” Chhetri has played 145 matches for India since making his debut in 2005 against Pakistan in Quetta and has scored 93 goals so far.

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