History beckons Blue Tigers: Chhetri and his men eager to script their own narrative

KOLKATA: The road has been rugged and bumpy so far but India still stand on the cusp of history. A victory on the night of June 6 at the Salt Lake Stadium for India against Kuwait in their penultimate Group A fixture of the FIFA World Cup 2026 and AFC Asian Cup 2027 Preliminary Joint Qualification Round 2 will put their one foot into the never-seen-before territory – the next round of qualifiers.

June 6. It’s a date that has been echoing in the realm of Indian football for the past couple of months. The defeat to Afghanistan in Guwahati in March converted this date into practically a do-or-die occasion for India. And the echoes were further amplified when Sunil Chhetri, exactly three weeks before the D-Day, announced that it would also be his R-Day — R for Retirement. After 19 years of unmatchable service to his great nation, the Indian skipper will hang his boots at the Salt Lake, amid more than 60 thousand people, who will witness the legend’s last kick of the ball for India.

But Chhetri was the quickest to point out during Wednesday’s pre-match press conference that the match should not be about him, but the potentially ground-breaking result awaiting Indian football.

“I’m trying really hard not to think about the game emotionally. It’s not about me. I would love to win 1-0, I don’t care who scores. The last 15 days have been good. I think we’re on the same page in terms of fitness and that’s a good headache for the coach to have,” said Chhetri.

India head coach Igor Stimac also concurred with his skipper’s words. The most significant thing about tomorrow will be the victory. The fact that it’s Chhetri’s last 90 minutes for the nation adds to the prestige of the fixture.

“Knowing that this is the last game of our captain for the national team makes this occasion much, much bigger. But of course, this is still about India winning against Kuwait. We are focussed on what we need to do. I will put it in a few words – we are ready for it,” said Stimac.

India and Kuwait have met thrice in the last 12 months, twice in the SAFF Championship (1-1 in the group stage and a penalty shoot-out win for India in the final), before the Blue Tigers triumphed 1-0 in the World Cup Qualifiers in November.

“We had three tight, tough games against Kuwait,” said Stimac. “Either team could’ve won them. I would say our best game was away in Kuwait in these qualifiers because that was perfect defensive shape, not allowing them to get near our box and create clear chances. That’s what we need to repeat tomorrow, with our discipline, focus, tight marking, reaching the opposition goal and scoring the goal because that’s what we need.”

Scoring goals from open play has been an Achilles heel for India, who have failed to score in five of the last six matches apart from Chhetri’s penalty against Afghanistan in Guwahati. In fact, India’s last open-play goal came against Kuwait from Manvir Singh’s left foot. But with every passing training session with goal nets bulging non-stop from finishing drills, Stimac gains more and more confidence.

“The boys have worked tremendously hard on details and for everything that is needed for this game. We’re going to be absolutely ready for each scenario which awaits us,” he said.

As far as India’s opponents are concerned, after the end of their domestic season in the last week of May, Kuwait held a one-week camp in Bangkok before travelling to Kolkata on Tuesday night. Their Portuguese head coach Rui Bento named a 26-man squad composed entirely of players from the Kuwait Premier League.

“We expect a good game tomorrow. We know that both teams have competitive targets and the same goal. We’ve had a good environment in our training. We believe that more than the one week of camp in Thailand, it’s about the one and a half year of us being together as a team,” said Bento.

The former Portugal youth international coach believed Kuwait, ranked 139th in the world, are now in a better place than last year and can put up a better challenge against India on Thursday as compared to the last three meetings. However, the West Asians are also wary that a defeat will condemn them to the bottom two in the group and officially eliminate them from World Cup qualifying.

“Yes, we played three games against India last year. They were all very balanced and the teams were at a similar level. But all those matches are history. Football is always an ongoing process, and we are proud and confident of ourselves. We are more prepared now to face India and expect ourselves to be better than before and win the game,” said Bento.

The match between India and Kuwait will be broadcast on Sports 18 1, Sports 18 1 HD, Sports 18 3, and streamed live on JioCinema, on June 6, 2024, at 19:00 IST.

Also read: Tiri pens extension with Mumbai City FC

Also read: A legend’s final bow: Chhetri wants to walk out on a high

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