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Indians seek to qualify for 2011 Asian Cup

A win for India in the AFC Challenge Cup in Hyderabad will see them qualify for the 2011 Asian Cup and a ticket to be in the big league once again.

sports Updated: Jul 29, 2008 14:49 IST

The Indian football team will seek to leave behind recent setbacks and take inspiration from its Nehru Cup triumph last year when it kicks off its AFC Challenge Cup campaign against Afghanistan in Hyderabad on Wednesday.

After the Nehru Cup win last August, which was the country's first major title in 23 years, India has not done anything extraordinary with disappointments in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers against Lebanon and the SAFF Cup debacle in June in Colombo where India lost to Maldives 0-1 in the final.

A win for India in the eight-nation tournament in Hyderabad, the continent's tier II competition, will see them qualify for the 2011 Asian Cup and a ticket to be in the big league once again after 1984 when India made it to the elite-competition though they made an exit in the group stage.

For a country which does not play international football quite frequently, this tournament is seen as an opportunity to revive the fortunes of a "sleeping giant" and Bob Houghton's charges will have to come out firing to prove that they belong to the elite Asian stage.

India, whose Under-20 team lost to Nepal in the knock-out quarterfinal stage in the first edition of the tournament in 2006 in Bangladesh, are the second highest ranked side at 153rd after formidable North Korea who are ranked 94th in latest FIFA charts.

Group A opponents and defending champions Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are at 154th and 158th. Besides North Korea, Sri Lanka (161st), Myanmar (164th) and Nepal (177th) are the other three teams in Group B.

For the home team, the North Koreans would be the most formidable opponents considering that the East Asians have made it to the final qualifying round of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa after playing two drawn matches against their more fancied neighbours South Korea.

India, though, will look back at the Nehru Cup in New Delhi last August when they beat strong opponents Syria -- who are now ranked 102nd in FIFA charts -- in front of vociferous home fans at Ambedkar Stadium though crowd participation in Hyderabad could be low after AFC shifted most of the matches to far off Gachibowli stadium due to lack of facilities at the Lal Bahadur Stadium which is at the heart of the city.

They also had a satisfying 12-day training-cum-exposure tour of Portugal as part of the preparation for this tournament before playing Malaysia in a friendly match in Hyderabad on July 22 which was a 1-1 draw.

The Baichung Bhutia-led home side will have to concentrate first on the group matches and they cannot take the surprise qualifiers Afghans lightly in the second match of the tournament at the Gachibowli stadium.

The Afghans, though ranked lowest in the tournament at 181st in latest FIFA charts, are a much improved side since they started playing in the international arena in 2002 with a German coach Klaus Stark, who was appointed in 2004 to develop football in Afghanistan.

The determined footballers from the war-ravaged country can spring a surprise and they had shown it in the qualifiers where they beat strong Kyrgyzstan 1-0 and holding Bangladesh -- 2006 edition runners-up though not in the fray this time -- to a goalless draw to make it to the final round in Hyderabad.

They had also shown their potential in Colombo in June in the SAFF Cup, holding Sri Lanka, another team in the competition in Hyderabad, and Bangladesh.

A win on Wednesday for India will give them the confidence against Tajikistan and Turkmenistan on August 1 and 3 respectively, which they should look to win to top the group and avoid North Koreans in the cross-legged semifinals.

The tournament is important for coach Houghton who had been appointed in June 2006 on a three-year contract to guide India to greater heights after years of slumber. The experienced Englishman has not achieved much except for the Nehru Cup triumph.

Obviously referring to this tournament, the former Fulham midfielder had said he would want some results before thinking of another stint as coach as his contract expires in May next year.

"I want some results before thinking of continuing as coach in case AIFF wants me to stay further," he had said when asked whether he would be interested for a second tenure.

His worry though has been the injuries to some key players in the run up to the tournament. Key defender NS Manju has been ruled out of the tournament due to hamstring injury while top players Steven Dias and Mahesh Gawli are doubtful for Wednesday's match.

But the good news is that Gawli and Dias should be fit for the second and third group matches against Tajikistan and Turkmenistan while Surkumar Singh, Renedy Singh and K Ajayan have recovered from their injuries and played in the friendly against Malaysia.

Captain Baichung Bhutia has also been in fine form scoring the lone goal against Malaysia in the friendly and his recent date with some top international stars in a charity match for the cause of African children must have done a world of good to his confidence.