Chhetri: We have made huge strides
Bengaluru: Sunil Chhetri has insisted that India have improved dramatically since the 2011 AFC Asian Cup as the forward prepares to lead his country into the 2019 edition in the United Arab Emirates in January.
Chhetri was 26 when the South Asians competed in the continental competition in Qatar just under eight years ago, when the Blue Tigers were eliminated in the group stage after suffering heavy defeats to Australia, Bahrain and Korea Republic.
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But, after failing to qualify for the 2015 edition and then suffering a demoralising loss to Guam three years ago, India went on a 13-game unbeaten run between June 2016 and March 2018 as they advanced to what will be their fourth AFC Asian Cup appearance.
“[Back then] we had never been on such a big stage and it didn’t help to face Australia, Korea and Bahrain; we gave our best but I think we were a bit overwhelmed,” admitted Chhetri, who netted twice in the 2011 tournament.
“If we compare ourselves with the other Asian countries then we fall short, but if we compare with what we were 15 years back then I think we have made huge strides.
“But because we’re chasing the bigger teams then we can’t be happy or satisfied, we have to keep our heads down and keep improving.”
Earned our right to battle against Asia’s best and what better place to do it than at the Fortress. Happy,proud,relieved and more. pic.twitter.com/a4DkDJCCNK— Sunil Chhetri (@chetrisunil11) October 11, 2017
With 64 goals in just over 100 appearances, Chhetri is by some way India’s all-time leading scorer, while among active footballers in world football today, only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have scored more for their countries.
The forward scored four goals in the third round of qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup, including crucial winners in Myanmar and home to Kyrgyz Republic on Matchdays One and Two as the South Asians set the pace before eventually securing qualification with a game to spare.
India have since won the 2018 Intercontinental Cup after a brace from Chhetri in the 2-0 win over Kenya in the final meant their recent improvement was also rewarded with silverware.
With the skipper absent, meanwhile, India have also reached the 2018 SAFF Championship final, where they will meet the Maldives on Saturday.
The JSW Bengaluru man’s next task will be to lead his country in the United Arab Emirates next year, when they will face the hosts, Thailand and a rematch with Bahrain.
“It’s an honour and a privilege to captain my country; I’ve been playing for my country for the past 12 years and it’s been brilliant,” added Chhetri.
“We are about to play the Asian Cup and it’s a huge responsibility that I’m really looking forward to. Now, personally, I think I’ll be calmer because I think I’m more mature. I’ve experienced the tournament and I can help my juniors go over there and stay calm.
“We have to work hard to make sure qualifying for the Asian Cup becomes normal for us and we don’t feel how we did in 2011.”
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