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Qualifying for Asian Cup is real benchmark: Sunil Chhetri

Chhetri said India should focus on AFC Asian Cup qualification before dreaming about WC.

PTI | Mumbai |

India football captain Sunil Chhetri is of the view that the country needs to focus more on qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup on a consistent basis before dreaming about playing in the World Cup.

"We have to qualify for this tournament constantly. We sure want to win the game against Myanmar (on March 28). The last time we played (Myanmar) we lost 0-1 after missing so many chances and it dashed our dreams. We talk about playing in the World Cup but if we have to better ourselves, this is a big benchmark, this is the real one," said the star striker ahead of India's Group A game in Yangoon.

"If we had more training time or played more matches it would have helped but that's in the past. We have got 13-14 days now to make sure what the Gaffer (coach Stephen Constantine) wants is to do. This is different from club football.

"This is massive as we have a chance to qualify for the most important tournament in Asia, the 2019 Asia Cup. It's very important to qualify for such big tournaments," said the 32-year-old player who had taken part in the 2011 Asian Cup.

Chhetri and the other national team probables are having a short camp at the Andheri Sports Complex here before heading first to Cambodia to play a friendly against that country in Phnom Penh on March 22 ahead of the AFC Asian Cup qualifying group game against Myanmar.

"It's not very often we play big tournaments and we talk about Asia Cup and it is the biggest in Asia, so when you have a chance you want to grab it. We have been playing qualification for so long and now we are in the final stages of qualification and we don't want to give up," he elaborated.

"The best in Asia are here. In 2011 we were unlucky to get Australia South Korea and Bahrain – ranked 1, 3 and 5 (then in Asia). That's the sort of tournaments you want to play," said Chhetri.

India have been clubbed with Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan and Macau which is considered the easier group, but Chhetri thought otherwise.

"Under me, we have not done particularly well away from home although we have had some great results at home. We have to improve that stats. It (talk about India being placed in a relatively easy pool) will be only true if we qualify," said Chhetri.

Chhetri rued that India have not played any friendly after shocking higher ranked Puerto Rico at this very venue last year.

"Before the Puerto Rico game if someone had asked will you win I would probably have said am not 100 per cent sure.

After that we have not played a single game which is not an ideal situation. The country has to play more friendlies.

That gives us a chance. When you play a better opponent you will learn even if you don't win.

"We have to rub shoulders at the next level, say with Palestine, Lebanon etc, and then you know how much you are improving. I am sure the gaffer Stephen understands it and that's why he wants it." 

According to Chhetri the friendly against Cambodia would help the team get into the groove for the Asian Cup qualifier against Myanmar after the players had been playing for their respective I-League clubs for so long.

"Coming from different clubs a friendly always helps in getting into the groove for the national team. We want to keep playing. The guy I wanted to kick yesterday – (fellow striker) Jeje Lalpekhlua – is my friend (in the Indian team)," said Chhetri in a tongue-in-cheek remark about playing club football as compared to playing for the nation.

He hoped Constantine would have all the players to choose from and free from injuries although in the same breath he also mentioned that camper and midfielder Pronay Halder is not training as he is injured.

"The most important part is everyone should be fit enough but Pranoy is injured and is not training. I want the the coach to have all the players fit and strong. Then we have a chance.

"When our gaffer came in not many players were sure of being in the first eleven. Now we also have a bigger pool to choose from and that helps. But the important thing is someone else should be there who is equally good to take the injured player's place."