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We are stronger and more prepared for 2026 World Cup qualifiers: Chhetri

New Delhi: Talismanic India striker Sunil Chhetri believes his team is ‘strong’ and ‘more prepared’ than previous occasions to make it to the next round of the FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifiers as the players have had good game time under their belts this year.

The 39-year-old Chhetri will lead India into Round 2 of the FIFA World Cup 2026 and AFC Asian Cup Saudi Arabia 2027 Joint Qualification campaign when they take on Kuwait in the opening away tie on Thursday.

The stalwart said the fine performances against international sides at home had given the team a more settled look.

‘I think it is just the morale of the team, or what has happened in the last 6-8 months. A lot of boys have taken their places in the team. And that is why we are probably more prepared,’ Chhetri told AIFF on Monday.

‘Also, the World Cup qualifiers are happening at a time when a lot of us have a decent amount of game time under our belts. All these things do matter.’ India will play matches against Kuwait, Qatar and Afghanistan, and the captain said his players might have good or bad outings but the team will not be taken aback by the playing styles of their opponents.

‘We played Kuwait twice a few months back, so we have better knowledge of them. We have played Qatar at least thrice in the last three years, which again helps. And we always know Afghanistan. We have played them enough.

‘So I think whenever we play these teams, we might play good or bad, but we will not be surprised by what we are playing against. Barring the away tie in Kuwait, we are aware of the atmosphere for the away matches against Afghanistan and Qatar,’ said Chhetri.

Chhetri also added that India will rely more on teamwork than individual flair to give a tough fight to their rivals.

‘I think we are at the right stage. This team probably is a strong side. It’s a team that has played together for some time. And a lot of youngsters are there. Yes, we look good.

‘Our team has always relied on hard work, team spirit, and being together. A lot of other teams have individual flair and other things. Probably, we are not that team. And I’ve got no qualms in accepting that. So that is why I said we are more prepared. We have to turn up on the pitch and perform well,’ he said.

Chhetri , though, said that to translate home success on foreign soil, hard work and tweaks in method would be an absolute necessity.

India have remained unbeaten in all 11 matches against foreign sides played this year at home. The run stretched to almost four years, with the last defeat coming in Guwahati against Oman in September 2019 in the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers.

‘At home, we have done decently well. In away games, we haven’t. If we have to go to the next round and be among the 18 best teams in Asia, we have to rectify our method. Here, every point in every game does matter, because the top two teams of every group qualify,’ Chhetri said.

‘So, we really have to work hard while starting against Kuwait in the away match. It’s a difficult one. But, as I said, barring a few injuries, I think we are well prepared. ‘At the same time, these 18 teams won’t have to play the qualifiers for the next Asian Cup. So, we can qualify automatically and reach the next round of the World Cup qualifiers too,’ he added.

India’s upcoming pre-World Cup journey will be Chhetri’s fourth such appearance, an Indian record. He has nine goals to his credit in the pre-World Cup, the best by an Indian footballer till date.

But the champion footballer says the success is due to teamwork.

‘Whenever we have done well in the last four years, we have done it as a team. We are always a team more than individuals. So, that’s why every one of us has to be switched on. Take as much information as possible and be as prepared as possible,’ said Chhetri.

PLAYING KUWAIT IN THEIR BACKYARD WILL BE DIFFERENT ===================================== India had beaten Kuwait 5-4 on penalties to clinch the ninth SAFF Championship title earlier this year but Chhetri warned that playing them in their home country could be tougher with the fans rooting for the hosts.

‘When we play on the 16th against Kuwait, it will be a little different from the one we played last time at home. Now the local fans are probably going to be hostile against us. Kuwait will be different because all teams are different when they play at home.

‘But they also will be under pressure because they, like us, will try to be in the first two teams in the group. So it’s not going to be easy. We must commit minimal mistakes because, in these big games, small mistakes can cost you a lot,’ he concluded. PTI AM SSC SSC

(Published 13 November 2023, 17:13 IST)

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