Sunil Chhetri was not part of the playing eleven for Bengaluru FC’s Super Cup match against Odisha FC on Friday night as he is on national duty for India at the AFC Asian Cup.

Securing a knockout round berth looks difficult but not impossible as the Indian football team takes on title contenders Australia in its opening group match of the AFC Asian Cup here on Saturday. Eliminated in the group stage in their last two appearances in 2011 and 2019, India face an uphill task this time also, as they have been clubbed with Australia, Uzbekistan and Syria in Group B. (Fernando Santos Has No Regrets On Benching Cristiano Ronaldo During FIFA World Cup 2022, Says, ‘If We Won Nobody…’)

 WATCH : Bengaluru FC captain Sunil Chhetri scores to take his ISL goal tally to 58 #OFCBFC  #ISL  #IndianFootball
 90ndstoppage (@90ndstoppage) October 31, 2023

India’s hopes of making it to the round of 16 in the continental showpiece depends on the outcome of the match against Syria on January 23 as Australia and Uzbekistan (January 18) are way ahead of them in terms of quality.A win against Syria can put India in the third place in the group, offering a chance for a knock-out round berth. The top two teams from each group, along with four best third-placed sides from across six groups, progress to the knockout round of 16.

Head coach Igor Stimac and captain Sunil Chhetri have already hinted that Australia (25th in FIFA ranking) and Uzbekistan (68th) — the favourites to take the top two spots in the group — are possibly out of reach for India.India had beaten Syria in the past — in the 2007 and 2009 Nehru Cup tournaments — and that provides a ray of hope for the Chhetri-led team, ranked 102 in the world. (Cristiano Ronaldo Buys ‘Billionaires Island’ In Dubai – Report)

A knockout round berth will be a huge achievement for India, who are making their fifth appearance in the Asian Cup, after coming close in the last edition in 2019, and especially for Chhetri, who will be playing for the last time in the prestigious tournament. The 39-year-old talisman will be playing in his third Asian Cup, after his 2011 and 2019 campaigns, having scored four goals in six matches, the most by an Indian.

India will start as clear underdogs at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium against mighty Australia, the 2015 champions, who have come here with ambitions of regaining the title and who won 4-0 in the 2011 edition group match in the only earlier clash between the two sides in the tournament. Australia are one of the regular sides in the FIFA World Cup from Asia and they are a confident bunch after making it to the round of 16 in the last edition in Qatar. They had made a quarterfinal exit in the 2019 Asian Cup.

The Socceroos are a mix of experienced and young players with 19 of the 26 currently plying trade in European leagues while only four are playing in the domestic A-League. The remaining three play in Japan and Saudi Arabia.

India have come into the tournament with the best available squad, after three key players — defender Anwar Ali, defensive midfielder Jeakson Singh and nippy winger Ashique Kuruniyan — missed out due to injuries.

Chhetri seems to be getting better with advancing age but despite his hunger for goal, it will not be easy for him and his team-mates to breach the Australian goal, manned by captain and experienced custodian Mathew Ryan, who won the Asian Cup in 2015 and was part of the squad that qualified for each of the last three World Cups.

Stimac’s men would do well to keep the damage to the minimum as the number of goals conceded may play a role later in deciding who makes it to the round of 16 as third-place team.

“We didn’t have much knowledge of Australian team back then (2011)…Compared to minute details we have now. We have watched their friendlies against Palestine and Bahrain, we know which leagues their players are in, and individual clips on them,” said Chhetri.

“With this familiarity, the fear factor goes out…Of course they are a couple of levels above…But at least we know what we are up against.” Statistically, the two countries have played eight matches against each other with Australia having won four times and India thrice, with one game ending in a draw.

All of India’s wins have, however, come before 1957. The Indian men’s senior team is also playing for the first time under Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in the match against Australia on Saturday. VAR technology will make its full debut in Qatar following its successful implementation from the quarter-final stage in the 2019 edition in the United Arab Emirates.

All 51 matches at the Asian Cup in Qatar will also see VAR complemented by the Semi-Automated Offside Technology (SAOT) system.The India-Australia match will also see Japan’s Yoshimi Yamashita creating history by becoming the first woman referee to take charge of a game in the Asian Cup. (With PTI inputs)

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