Bhubaneswar: In the last leg of his glittering career, Indian talisman Sunil Chhetri will be the cynosure of all eyes as the Blue Tigers look to regain the Intercontinental Cup, which begins here Friday.
While Lebanon and Vanuatu will play in the tournament opener, hosts India will take on Mongolia in the day’s second match, kicking off their campaign against the lowest-ranked team (No 183) in the tournament.
The Blue Tigers, ranked 101 in the FIFA rankings, will enter the tournament as the second-highest-ranked team, with Lebanon (99) ahead of them by two places.
With 84 goals to his name from 131 international appearances, the most by an Indian, Chhetri has set numerous records over the last two decades.
As far as the tournament is concerned, no player has made an impact like the Indian skipper who has scored 11 of India’s 16 goals in the event.
Chhetri is the only player to score a hat-trick in the competition.
“Sunil has always been a role model and a leader in every sense for the boys and girls. But he’s not only talking, he’s showing that with his test results once again,” Stimac had said.
“In this camp, he was in top-five positions in all the tests we executed. So that’s the best way of leading the team and showing them how much it can be done.
“Never mind the age, never mind the month or the year, so let alone what he speaks what he does on the pitch and how he works. That’s what is the most important thing,” the coach was effusive in his praise for Chhetri.
The Blue Tigers won the inaugural edition in 2018 but found the going tough in 2019, which was won by Korea, while India finished fourth in the group.
Fresh from winning the Tri-Nation Cup, Igor Stimac’s side will look to improve its show in the four-nation meet, which returns after four years following the pandemic.
Ahead of the marquee Asian Cup in Qatar next January, this tournament will give the Croat an opportunity to fine-tune his side.
India will be playing in the SAFF Championship, Merdeka Cup in the lead-up to the Asian Cup and the key for Stimac will be to improve its finishing, passing, pattern in the final third, and also the build-up.
“Asian Cup prospects will depend on December preparations because things are changing on a daily basis.
“It depends on who are in form, who are in best position in December, they (players) are coming after a long domestic season behind. They need to stay in form and enter the Asian Cup on a positive note,” Stimac said.
It will be a tricky contest against Mongolia, an unknown entity for Chhetri and Co. The Blue Wolves beat Brunei Darussalam 3-2 on aggregate to progress to the second round for the first time in the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers.
In the second round, they registered 1-0 wins over Myanmar and Kyrgyz Republic, two opponents India also beat, to win the Tri-Nation tournament earlier this year.
Mongolia also beat Yemen 2-0 in the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers last year after suffering narrow defeats to Philippines and Palestine.
In March this year, under Japanese coach Ichiro Otsuka, Mongolia faced a UEFA opponent for the first time, 77-ranked Georgia, who they held 1-1 until half-time before going down 1-6 in a friendly game in Batumi.
After this, India are set to play Vanuatu (June 12), and Lebanon (June 15). The top two teams will play the final June 18.
Kick-off: 7.30 pm IST.