The Indian national football team is currently undergoing an intensive training camp in Bhubaneswar in preparation for the forthcoming Hero Intercontinental Cup and SAFF Championship in June. The competition in both tournaments is set to be highly challenging, with the involvement of teams of outstanding quality.

The Blue Tigers will compete against Mongolia, Vanuatu, and Lebanon in the Hero Intercontinental Cup, while they will face off against Kuwait, Nepal, and Pakistan in Group A of the SAFF Championship. Matches against formidable opponents like Lebanon and Kuwait will serve as testing grounds, allowing the team to improve their gameplay, identify areas of improvement, and adapt to different styles of play.

According to India's skipper, Sunil Chhetri, playing against strong teams will not only allow the team to assess its capabilities but also ensure thorough preparation for the imminent challenges in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.

“Lebanon and Kuwait will give us an understanding of where we stand, especially as we have to play teams like Syria in the Asian Cup. Uzbekistan could be a level higher. Syria are also a top team. The young boys haven’t played against them, but some of the seniors from Bob Houghton’s time have that experience. They have improved a lot. They are a top side, and obviously, we all know that Australia are one of the best in Asia,” Chhetri said during a media interaction on Saturday.

The Blue Tigers have lined up for long-term preparation ahead of the continental championship next year. The 38-year-old acknowledges the initiative taken by the AIFF, as he believes that playing more matches against tougher opponents will significantly strengthen the team.

“The more games we get to play against better opponents, the better it will be for us. We just need to make sure that we manage it well against these opponents. It’s important to make sure that we improve as a team and individually as well. What we do in the camp is really important we must make sure that we are in a position to put our best foot forward once the Asian Cup is here,” he stated.

India has been drawn with arch-rivals Pakistan in the same group for the SAFF Championship, with Pakistan expected to include several overseas-based players. Commenting on the involvement of OCI players, the Indian skipper suggests that we should scout young talents from across the nation to achieve better results in the long run.

“We are a country with a billion people and we have a bigger pool to choose from. Countries like Pakistan fielding origin-based players are nothing new. Players from Afghanistan also play abroad. So, I think, whenever we get the chance, we will decide on inviting players of Indian origin. But in the longer run, we need to make sure to rely on homegrown talent. Other countries’ criteria are different,” Chhetri opined.

The Blue Tigers have once again been drawn against tough opponents in the AFC Asian Cup, which includes former champion Australia, Uzbekistan, and Syria in Group B.

However, Chhetri remarks that there have been numerous incidents in the past where underdog teams in tournaments have showcased their strength and caused significant upsets. He firmly believes that the Blue Tigers are also capable of springing their own surprises.

“By the looks of it, it seems to be a comparatively more difficult draw than what we had in the 2019 Asian Cup. We always knew it would be difficult. The same was the case in 2019 as well. We had some good moments, especially against Thailand, and in the second half against Bahrain. We need to make sure that we’re tough as opponents. A lot of underdogs have shown their capabilities recently, and Morocco is a prime example in the FIFA World Cup,” he said.

This will be India's fifth Asian Cup appearance and also their first-ever consecutive qualification for the tournament. Chhetri, who is set to play in his third AFC Asian Cup, states that for a nation like ours, our minimum aim should be to qualify for the Asian Cup every time.

“It’s always a pride to play the AFC Asian Cup. But now we have more knowledge and confidence. The bare minimum should be to keep qualifying for the Asian Cup. It’s highly pivotal for us to keep rubbing shoulders with the best in the continent. A lot has changed for the good, and we need to give a good account of ourselves,” said Chhetri.

Apart from Chhetri, the Indian National Team has consistently faced a shortage of proficient strikers. However, there have been several young strikers who have excelled in recent years and earned their place in the senior national team.

The skipper acknowledges the quality of the young forwards but emphasizes that they need to continue working hard to prepare themselves for the striker position.

“It’s a catch-22 situation. (Ishan) Pandita, Rahim (Ali), Manvir (Singh), and Sivasakthi are all good players, but they need to work very hard to earn that respect.

“There were matches during the Hero ISL season where Roy Krishna or myself were on the bench on occasions, but Sivasakthi was the one who was always playing. If you give them more opportunities, they will become more confident. But on the flip side, they are also competing against the Hero ISL foreigners, so they need to work hard too,” Chhetri concluded.

 Hyderabad FC goalkeeper Gurmeet Singh receives first India call-up

Indian head coach Igor Stimac has introduced another new face to his squad by giving Gurmeet Singh his first call-up to the national team.

Unfortunately, Mumbai City FC goalkeeper Phurba Lachenpa, who received his first call-up earlier this year, has been forced out of consideration this time due to a right adductor strain. Lachenpa will continue his recovery from the injury, while Gurmeet will join the team in Bhubaneswar.

Gurmeet, who serves as the custodian for Hyderabad FC, has been a consistent presence for the club this season. With 14 appearances in the Hero Indian Super League, he has made 41 saves and secured seven clean sheets.

Bengaluru FC midfielder Suresh Singh Wangjam has also been released from the National Camp due to a hamstring issue.