Sunil Chhetri, who will be 38 in August, often says he increases the average age of the India team. On Wednesday, when his brace set up a win against Cambodia in the final round Asian Cup qualifiers, Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu were the only players over 30 among the 16 used by head coach Igor Stimac. And Sandhu turned 30 in February.
Stimac’s squad of 23 has an average age of 25.9 with only two other players, Rahul Bheke and Laxmikant Kattimani, over 30. Bheke is 31 and Kattimani 33. Had Rahim Ali (22), Appuiah (21) and Rahul KP (22) not been injured, the average age would have been lower. “We have youth which can take us forward,” said Stimac on Wednesday after his first win in India.
In his time, Stimac has handed debuts to a number of young players including full backs Akash Mishra (20) and Roshan Naorem (23), ball playing central defender Anwar Ali (22), midfielders Suresh Wangjam (21), Liston Colaco (23) and Brandon Fernandes (25). “For the past few years we suffered but we also gained a lot. And now the time has come for these players to step up. You saw clearly Roshan and Suresh playing like they already have 100 games for the national team. And Akash also. These are the boys who will wear the shirt for the next 10-12 years,” said Stimac.
Anwar Ali, Naorem, Mishra and Fernandes are comfortable shooting with both feet. Fernandes fired one from distance that could have been India’s third goal and both full backs tested Cambodia goalkeeper Hul Kimhuy. “Young boys in critical positions using both feet” to shoot and cross without compromising on speed is “a great thing to have,” said the head coach.
When Rahim Ali –“he is strong and can play No. 9,” Chhetri had said last week–and the other young players recover, they will, according to Stimac, “add energy to the national team.”
That nine in the India roster here were also part of the 2019 Asian Cup squad means that despite not playing in 2020 due to Covid-19, the team is not thin on experience. In 2011, when Bob Houghton took India to the Asian Cup finals for the first time in 27 years, it marked the end of a cycle.
2019 was different and so will the next edition should India qualify. Between now and the finals, these players will have at least one more season of the Indian Super League and, hopefully, a few internationals. Most of them should also be playing in the qualification cycle for the 2027 edition.
‘It’s again Sunil’
Not used to playing teams they need to take the game to, India lacked quality final passes at Salt Lake stadium. “There are lots of things to improve on,” said Stimac. Crucial among them is the lack of goalscorers. “It’s again Sunil,” he said. “Others are trying but not finding a way. So I expect goals from Liston, Udanta (Singh), from Manvir, Ashique (Kuruniyan), Sahal (Abdul Samad).” The attacking players Stimac mentioned have, according to the data website transfermarkt, an aggregate of 15 goals contributions in a combined match tally of 118.
Stimac said he had replaced Chhetri not just because the skipper was on a booking but also to give the team a chance to play without him. “They need to learn to play without him and this was a good chance to give them half-an-hour.” Chhetri, who scored his 82nd international goal on Wednesday, was replaced by Kuruniyan in the 68th minute.