We need to play as a cohesive unit against Saudi Arabia, says Sunil Chhetri

NEW DELHI: Sunil Chhetri is aware of the problems the India Men’s team are facing during their current Asian Games campaign in Hangzhou. He is also conscious of India’s dismal track record against Saudi Arabia and the present strength of the West Asian side.

But it could hardly deter him from keeping his focus straight for the Round of 16 tie against Saudi Arabia in the Asian Games on Thursday, September 28, 2023, at the Huanglong Sports Centre Stadium, Hangzhou. He believes that if India can stick to the right strategies and his young teammates continue to play as a cohesive unit as they did in the three earlier outings, then the pre-quarter-final battle could be a tantalising one.

“We were shown a lot of clips from the Saudi games by our coach (Igor Stimac), not only the ones that they played here but also a few of their matches from the recent past. He spoke about different ways in which we go out and apply ourselves. On the face value, they are a very good side with a lot of good, decent players, who are good with the ball….a lot of quality in and around the whole team,” said the Indian captain.

Saudi Arabia, the fifth-largest country in Asia and ranked 57 in the FIFA ranking, have always held the upper hand against India, ranked 102, having scored 18 goals in five encounters while India could manage only two. The last meeting between the two teams in the Asian Games ended in a solitary goal victory for Saudi Arabia in the 1982 quarter-finals in New Delhi.

In Hangzhou, India played three matches, losing against China (1-5), winning against Bangladesh (1-0), and settling for a draw against Myanmar (1-1). These four points earned them a spot in the Round of 16, setting the stage for the eagerly anticipated showdown tomorrow against Saudi Arabia. Their rivals, on the other hand, won two matches and drew against Iran in Group B.

The team’s success, despite facing a few problems, can be attributed to India’s meticulous strategies and dedication to their collective goal. Chhetri emphasised the significance of working together as a cohesive unit, highlighting the importance of unity and solidarity within the team.

“And that is why the emphasis from the coach is very simple: we go in as a unit and avoid situations where they get one versus one; that’s one of the major tactics,” Chhetri continued. “We saw a lot of clippings, a lot of formation, and different things that the coach wants to try. He also has one more day to see how the boys have recovered from three games in five days,” Chhetri added.

On being asked about the experience of playing three games in the Asian Games, Chhetri said, “The experience has been a quite difficult one. But now that we have qualified (for the Round of 16), it’s also fruitful. But I must admit it, it wasn’t easy the way it was and the things that we have to deal with as a team haven’t been easy, but what’s done is done and now we’re just looking forward with all our focus and concentration on the Saudi game.”

The squad features many young talents, and Chhetri expressed confidence in their potential, saying, “There are many youngsters in the squad who probably did not have the taste of this kind of tournament atmosphere. And to be fair, it’s quite evident, but what is also good is that everyone has given their best till now.

“I think a lot of us, especially the youngsters lacking in experience, are matching with our enthusiasm and the zeal to do well for the nation. And it’s not easy, especially when you are a youngster, but all of them are first improving every day and second, wanting to give everything they have got,” added Chhetri.

Coach Igor Stimac, however, stays undaunted by the challenge. “Yes, this is one of my biggest challenges as the India head coach so far. But I love challenges, I love to face them, I never shy away from them. It will be no different on Thursday.

“Few players are suffering from a cold and one from an upset stomach. There are no injuries for tomorrow.”

He also expressed confidence in the Blue Tigers’ ability to surprise Saudi Arabia. “Whatever our track record may be against Saudi Arabia, we are capable of springing surprises,” said the coach. “I had a meeting with the players and chalked out certain strategies for the Saudi Arabia match. Saudi are a brilliant side and playing with lots of confidence. They have great individual skills with a lot of talent in them,” he added.

“Our main problem is the lack of possibilities in regards to our players’ natural positions in the game. We are preparing to go out and fight against the rival camp. We are going to leave everything on the pitch. We are going to fight it hard,” asserted Coach Stimac.

The match, which kicks off at 5 pm IST, will be telecast live on Sony Sports Network and streamed live on SonyLiv.

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