Evergreen Sunil Chhetri, 12th man in the stands and more: Takeaways from India's AFC Asian Cup qualifiers

Indian men’s football team qualified for the AFC Asian Cup 2023 and celebrated the feat with a 4-0 win over Hong Kong in the final match of the third round of AFC Asian Cup qualifiers at the Salt Lake Stadium on Tuesday.

This will be the first time in the history of Indian football that the Blue Tigers are making back-to-back appearances in the AFC Asian Cup, having qualified for the last edition in 2019. Also, the 4-0 win against Hong Kong was the biggest victory in terms of goals under the head coach Igor Stimac's tenure. 

As the dust settles on India's memorable campaign, here's a look at key takeaways from the matches.

Sunil Chhetri is still the X-factor for the Blue Tigers

Without Sunil Chhetri, the Blue Tigers would be nowhere. The captain marvel continues to flourish on the front line. India scored a total of eight goals in the tournament and half of the goals were scored by the 37-years-old striker, which tells us why he has been the central force of this Indian attack for the last ten years.

Even in the later stage of his career, he is proving his critics wrong and also making a statement that those shoes will be difficult to fill. He scored his 84th international goal against Hong Kong which took him to the sixth spot in the all-time international scoring list along with Hungarian superstar Ferenc Puskas.

Whenever India looked for a goal, the 37-years-old striker was there to provide a breakthrough. The over-dependence on Chhetri is a concern but with the likes Abdul Sahal Samad, Liston Colaco, and Ishan Pandita stepping up, there is hope that the Chhetri will soon have attacking players to share his goalscoring burden.

Youngsters rise to the occasion

The Blue Tigers' youthful zeal and energy kept their opponents under pressure, which was reflected in the results as they won all three matches, scoring eight goals and conceding just one goal. Suresh Wangjam, Ashique Kuruniyan, Sahal Abdul Sahal, Jeakson Singh, Roshan Singh, Akash Mishra, and Anwar Ali were among the youngsters who shone in the tournament.

Throughout, they all demonstrated exceptional ability, setting the tone for what is to come for the Blue Tigers in the future. Ali excelled in his role as a centre-back, his calmness and fighting spirit on the field was a welcome sight for Indian football faithful. His pairing with the senior counterpart Sandesh Jhingan was solid and bodes well for the Indian team. In defense, the Indian center-back was a colossus, frequently covering for Jhingan and putting in some crucial challenges to frustrate opponents.

Suresh Wangjam was probably the pick of the lot as his defensive midfield work meant the back four had little to do. He covered vast amount of ground, breaking up the opponent's play and thus launching another wave of Indian attack. 

His presence allowed full-backs Akash Mishra and Roshan Naorem to bomb forward and cause all sorts of problems for the opponent. 

These youngsters are the present and future of India.

Igor Stimac gets it right

Igor Stimac has been the Indian head coach for three years, but the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers were his biggest triumph as India head coach.

He appears to be taking the correct steps. The first game was a straightforward triumph, while the second required some significant adjustments, which he dutifully made. The 1-2 comeback was achieved, for example, by bringing on Sahal late in the game and making the necessary alterations in the assault. Finally, everything came together in the final game.

Despite India's AFC Asian Cup qualification via Palestine's win, he fielded the full-strength side against Hong Kong. Stimac played with a settled lineup in the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers, making no more than two changes in every game. This also demonstrated his desire to correct previous errors. This was India's greatest performance as a team during his reign.

The 12th man for the Blue Tigers - The Kolkata crowd

Indian football saw the return of the spectators for an international match after almost two years. The crowd at the Salt Lake Stadium was electrifying throughout the tournament. Kolkata, which has traditionally been known as the Mecca of Indian football welcomed the Blue Tigers with open arms and provided them an edge against their opponents in the AFC Asain Cup qualifiers.

In the sweltering heat, fans kept composed as they waited in line to cheer for the national team. The sight of tens of thousands of supporters rallying behind the team during the game had a huge impact on the players' attitude, regardless of how the team was performing.

On matchdays, the fans flocked to the Salt Lake Stadium to watch the Blue Tigers play. Mexican waves, banners of the Indian team, a huge Indian flag, and a lot of cheering was on display while their heroes were fighting on the pitch. The fans' support did not go in vain, as the Indian team finished their campaign by topping the Group D and qualifying for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.

 

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