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How India is preparing for Asian Cup qualifiers

Indian footballers are looking forward to more international games in 2022

Bengaluru FC and India goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. (PTI)

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Indian football team’s senior players Sandesh Jhingan and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu feel the upcoming international friendlies against Bahrain and Belarus will be a “perfect opportunity to test our skills” ahead of the Asian Cup qualifiers. India is scheduled to play two international friendlies against Bahrain and Belarus on 23 March and 26 March respectively. Both the matches will be played in Manama, Bahrain.

The Asian Cup qualifiers are slated for June, with the main tournament scheduled to be held in China next year. “This is possibly one of the best news in recent times... These are the sort of matches that we need,” current AIFF Player of the Year Jhingan said in a release issued by the national federation.

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“We played Bahrain last time in the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019, and are aware they are a very good side. We also understand that Belarus are a powerful side too.” India goalkeeper Sandhu said: “It will be an extremely tough challenge, and a good one to play a side from a UEFA member association, which in itself is a big achievement. Teams in UEFA get to play against the best in the world as they regularly rub shoulders against them. So, they will come with all the experience, and present us the perfect opportunity to test ourselves.

“The federation has done a great job arranging these two matches. I see this as a real step moving forward towards our preparation ahead of the final round of the Asian Cup qualifiers in June 2022.” According to Jhingan, there is “quality and potential” in the current squad and such games will help it to improve.

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“We have a lot of quality, and potential in our squad. We look forward to these games to improve as a team, and be fully prepared for the final qualifying round of the Asian Cup in June. We understand the significance of such matches,” he said.

India has had a fairly busy 2021, with matches against such Asian heavyweights as the UAE and Oman, as well as against local South Asian teams like Nepal. Matches have included a 1-0 defeat against Qatar and a similar defeat against Oman in World Cup Qualifiers. India also drew 1-1 with Afghanistan and defeated Bangladesh 2-0 in the Qualifiers. India also had a successful SAFF Championship in October last year, winning the competition for the 8th time, with captain Sunil Chhetri scoring 5 goals in the tournament.

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India currently languishes at 104 in the FIFA world rankings, a far cry from its best-ever FIFA rank of 94 , achieved in 1996. However, over the past few years, the Indian Super League (ISL) has ensured that a newer generation of Indian footballers are training with world class professionals. This has led to greater confidence when it comes to international competitions like the Asian Cup. It’s no wonder then that Indian players are looking forward to the friendlies.

Star mid-fielder Anirudh Thapa also stressed that the two matches will be an exhilarating experience. “A lot of teams haven’t had a chance to play competitive matches due to the pandemic. And here we are, with two matches scheduled against Bahrain and Belarus. I feel we are lucky, and playing against such competent sides will be an exhilarating experience,” he said. They will certainly set the tone for India for the rest of 2022 when it comes to international football.

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