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Cup full of challenges

Houghton’s task will not just be to display quality football but also to ensure that the team’s core stays injury-free throughout the tournament, reports Abhijeet Kulkarni.

sports Updated: Jul 29, 2008 23:35 IST
Abhijeet Kulkarni

Indian coach Bob Houghton has stuck to his tried and trusted lieutenants during his two years tenure, rarely wavering from the script he decided back in 2006. However, injuries to key players in the last six months have not only forced him into changes but the lack of bench strength was evident in their failure to defend the SAFF Cup in June.

As the Indians prime themselves up for the AFC Challenge Cup beginning in Hyderabad from Wednesday, Houghton’s task will not just be to display quality football but also to ensure that the team’s core stays injury-free throughout the tournament that also offers a 2011 Asian Cup berth to the winner.

The hosts begin their campaign against minnows Afghanistan in a Group A encounter on Wednesday. Goalkeeper Sandip Nandy and defender N.S. Manju are already ruled out due to injuries and there are also doubts over the fitness of stopper-back Mahesh Gawli and winger Steven Dias for the opener.

But the opening tie should be the least of India’s worries with the Nehru Cup champions facing off against defending champions Tajikistan and formidable Turkmenistan within the next three days. “The schedule is really tight. Playing five games in three days would be taxing,” the Englishman told reporters.

Sri Lanka’s South Korean coach Jang Jung and Tajikistan’s Kodirove Tulod also expressed concerns over the scheduling but said the national teams could not complain since everyone gets to play under the same conditions.

And scheduling would be just one of the worries for Houghton, who knows that the challenge from DPR Korea (94th ranked) and Tajikistan (154) would be much bigger than what his team encountered during the Nehru Cup. Also the team would be missing the vociferous crowd that thronged the Ambedkar Stadium in Delhi then.

India’s first aim would be to book a semifinal berth and, if possible, try and top the group so as to avoid DPR Korea in the semifinal. But, Houghton was unwilling to comment on all those possibilities saying it was important to take one match at a time.

Holders Tajikistan, who defeated Sri Lanka in the 2006 final, are aware that this time they would encounter bigger challenges from Korea and hosts India, but coach Tulod is confident that the team was prepared for everything.

“But we have been preparing for the tournament for one year and we are at our best,” said Tulod, who will be missing quite a few players who excelled in the last edition’s successful campaign.

Poor training facilities

The training facilities have left a lot to be desired with the Indian football team even cancelling their training on Monday. The team was scheduled to practice at the Goshamil Police Stadium but after reaching the venue coach Bob Houghton decided to cancel training, as the grass was too big.

Even the Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium was below par and Houghton had already conveyed his displeasure over the pitch to the AIFF. “Mahesh (Gawli) got injured due to the bad state of the pitch only,” said an Indian player.