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Emotionally-charged Chhetri swansong hoping to take India past Kuwait in World Cup qualifier

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It’s now been 203 days since the Indian team last tasted victory when it beat Kuwait 1-0 away from home.

Since then, there has been a forgettable Asian Cup campaign, spurned opportunities against Afghanistan in the World Cup qualifier, calls for Igor Stimac to be axed and a huge Sunil Chhetri retirement announcement. There have also been no goals from open play in the following 555 regulation minutes.

India’s qualification to the third round of the qualifiers in Group A hangs by a thread and so does Stimac’s position. Yet, Stimac got his way with an extended training camp since the middle of May and also for the match to be held in Kolkata to receive strong home support for the final push.

Amidst all the setbacks, the mood remains upbeat, as India is set to host Kuwait in the reverse fixture at the Salt Lake Stadium here on Thursday.

ALSO READ | Chhetri, Stimac ready for the ‘biggest game’ of their lives vs Kuwait

Much of the focus has been understandably on Chhetri. On Thursday, one expects a wave of emotion and fanfare surrounding the team’s long-serving captain, which could help take the team over the line.

His teammates feel it too. Brandon Fernandes, Subhasish Bose, Sahal Abdul Samad and Lallianzuala Chhangte have all spoken about it in the last fortnight. Chhangte said he is craving to assist Chhetri in his swansong. Sahal has vowed to give his 100 per cent for Chhetri.

Managing emotions

Both the head coaches acknowledged the emotional element driving this game and stressed whoever managed it better and played the better football has the best chance of bagging the win. “Do you think we would rather play without the crowd?” Rui Bento shot back when asked if Kuwait would be under the cosh in front of a 62,000 partisan home crowd.

“Football is emotion as is life. Of course, controlling it is important and tomorrow it is very, very important. They are aware of what they are going to find. We have worked it with them. I don’t think of India or any opposition we face as the enemy. They are just opponents. In the end, football is a game. We have to know how to control and manage the emotions,” said the Portuguese Bento.

On paper, this fixture should be negotiable for India. Kuwait, which India has faced thrice in the last 12 months, is ranked 18 rungs below India at 139 and is placed last in the group. But with Indian football, nothing is so straightforward as evidenced in the last eight months. Kuwait resisted the reigning Asian champion Qatar till the last 10 minutes in the March qualifiers at home.

ALSO READ | Who can succeed Sunil Chhetri as India’s striker — a deep dive into what the numbers say

Stimac also lamented the lack of quality options from the bench since the win at Kuwait. But with the return to full fitness for Sahal, Jeakson Singh and Anwar Ali. The addition of untested I-League forwards Edmund Lalrindika and David Lalhlansanga, who have impressed in training, will be a boost for Stimac who will be without the suspended Vikram Partap Singh.

There is also a Sandesh Jhingan-sized hole in central defense, whose absence cost India in the 1-2 defeat at home to Afghanistan. When Afghanistan switched up tactics and opted to play the ball behind the left side of the defensive line, India panicked and the opposition capitalised, including from a Gurpreet Singh Sandhu error.

Balance or all-out attack?

Gurpreet, though, has the backing of Stimac, with the Croatian confirming that the Bengaluru FC shot-stopper will start as his No. 1 between the sticks.

Rahul Bheke and Anwar Ali will provide stability in front of the defense in India’s 4-2-3-1 formation. While Lallianzuala Chhangte’s pace in a substitute role was instrumental in India’s victory against Kuwait in November, Stimac will want to cash in on his rich vein of form in recent months. The winger has scored seven and set up four goals in the second half of the Indian Super League season.

It will be interesting to see if Stimac opts for an all-out four-man attack as he had done in key World Cup qualifiers in the past, namely the Bangladesh draw in 2019 in Kolkata and the Afghanistan away draw in March, which didn’t yield the desired results.

A balanced line-up would see Brandon Fernandes or Anirudh Thapa behind Chhetri with Chhangte and Manvir flanking the striker.

Backed by a boisterous crowd, India will rely on a fast start with swift passes behind Kuwait’s defensive line and catch them flat-footed.

Kuwait will look to frustrate India and not allow its attackers to find space in the final third of the pitch. The theme from the three matches between the two sides was such that both teams struggled to find many clear-cut chances at goal.

ALSO READ | Rahim Ali, who considers Sunil Chhetri his idol, hopes to succeed him as India captain hangs up his boots

But if an opportunity does present itself inside the Kuwaiti box, 62,000 supporters in the stadium and the rest of India watching would want it to fall to Chhetri. It would be a fitting fairytale for the 39-year-old to score the goal which puts India on the cusp of history. But Chhetri, who has seen more heartbreaks than joy, would know there is no perfect script.

“I would like to get a 1-0. I don’t care if Gurpreet scores or Amrinder (Singh) scores. I just want to win the game. Anyone from the Indian side, who scores a goal or from the other side if they score an own goal, I will be happy,” said Chhetri. “I am not sure you understand how big it is going to be. Once you win, it’s huge. It’s all going to change.”



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