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Champion Chhetri, Stimac 2.0, purring youngsters: lessons from India's Asian Cup qualification

Sunil Chhetri celebrates after scoring a goal against Afghanistan. AFC

Three matches, three wins, nine points, eight goals scored, one conceded... and qualification for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup as Group D winners. Job done for Team India, in the most comprehensive of manners, in front of packed stands of the Salt Lake stadium.

In the space of a week, India changed up the narratives of a national side that had seemed dour and mediocre while being knocked out of their World Cup qualification group. A 2-0 win over Cambodia raised hopes, before an injury time winner over Afghanistan lit a spark that turned into a fire in India's 4-0 rout of Hong Kong.

Here's what we learned from an eventful three games:

Igor Stimac, reborn?

What changed?

'The coach changed' - Igor Stimac's wry smile while answering this question after India's win over Hong Kong perhaps had an element of his patented sarcasm, but nonetheless, it possesses a hint of truth. The Croatian's time in charge of the national team has been less than inspiring, with Stimac often opting for experience over the freshness of youth.

Yet, in the last three games, Stimac was pitch-perfect. He put out three bold lineups in attacking formations that produced a style of football not seen under previous Indian managers in decades past. His substitutions were timely, and had an impact, also underlining the strength of the squad he had picked. Stimac has always asked for time and patience, and in keeping with the irony that pervades Indian football seems to have reached his peak just as his contract runs out.

He is still unabashedly free-speaking though, and came out swinging after the match, including demands for a league schedule that follows his whim, guarantees of playtime for his Indian squad members, greater communication between clubs and the AIFF, no foreigners in the I-League, as well as denouncing the timing of AIFF's organizational 'problems' of late - which has resulted in no conversations about his contract.

If anything else, the one thing consistent about Stimac is that he's always interesting. Will Indian football benefit from keeping him around? On the back of the last week, the answer is probably yes - however bitter a pill that is for some to swallow.

Sunil Chhetri: Captain, Leader, Legend... Puskas

Sunil Chhetri's 84th goal for India took him level with the great Ferenc Puskas of Hungary in the men's international all-time top-scorers chart - and he did it with a goal worthy of the Puskas award. Bringing back shades of Dennis Bergkamp's goal for Netherlands against Argentina immortalized by Jack van Gelder's commentary, one could have forgiven Anant Tyagi for a similarly breathless reaction to Chhetri's goal.

Plucking a ball out of the air with nonchalant ease, bringing it down towards his left foot before calmly stroking the ball past the keeper - it was vintage Chhetri. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi may be ahead of him in the scoring charts, but one could argue whether Ronaldo and Messi have carried their national sides as single-handedly as Chhetri has done for 17 years.

Many have waved away his record as simply one of that scored against the 'smaller' teams, but a) it's simply not true, statistically; b) If that were so, IM Vijayan and Bhaichung Bhutia would have scored similarly as well. In fact, here's how Sunil Chhetri compares to his next best competitors in the Indian scoring charts:

Chhetri: 84 goals in 129 games, 0.65 gpg

IM Vijayan: 29 goals in 66 games, 0.44 gpg

Bhaichung Bhutia: 27 goals in 82 games, 0.33 gpg

To witness his last few games in an Indian shirt will be a privilege - the 37-year-old still has magic in his feet, and fire in his heart.

India's youngsters purr

Speaking of fire in hearts...

Anwar Ali's composure on the ball and his unbelievable comeback story; Akash Mishra and Roshan Singh roaring down the wings like Brazilian laterals of old; Suresh Wangjam and Jeakson Singh dominating the middle of the park, withstanding the opposition's press with an ease belying their age; Ashique Kuruniyan, Sahal Abdul Samad, Liston Colaco and Manvir Singh creating and scoring with aplomb... and Ishan Pandita proving that there's no better player for scoring late, late goals - what a special three games for Indian youngsters it has been.

It all came together to form a delicious mix of football - on the ground, one touch, pretty triangles as India's youngsters took it upon themselves to rid us of memories of the hoofing the ball up to Chhetri/ Bhutia/Vijayan. It's not hyperbole to say this is new, very new, to Indian football (at least over the last couple of decades).

The fact that these group of players are coming through together is one thing - more encouraging still is that there were talents like Chinglensana Singh, Hormipam Ruivah, Puitea, Apuia etc. who missed out. The future of Indian football has never looked rosier, and all it took was one season of consistent football thanks to the 3+1 foreigner rule in the Indian Super League.

It almost makes Igor Stimac's demand for no foreigners in the I-League worth considering. Almost.

What next?

India are the 19th highest ranked side in Asia to qualify for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, placing them in Pot 4 of the draw. Palestine, ranked 100 (six places above India's 106), are the 18th highest side to qualify and are in Pot 3. A Pot 3 placing would have afforded India the chance to play against a lower ranked side, which would have greatly benefited their chances of qualifying from the group stages.

As it stands, India can expect a tough group in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, with one team from each of the following pots:

Pot 1: Iran, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar

Pot 2: UAE, Iraq, Oman, China, Uzbekistan, Syria

Pot 3: Bahrain, Jordan, Kyrgyz Republic, Vietnam, Lebanon, Palestine

As much as India's performances have raised hopes, qualifying for the knockouts of the AFC Asian Cup will be a tall order.

Away from the football, India still have a potential FIFA ban hanging over their heads. The governing body of world football never looks kindly upon third-party interference with their member federations, as Pakistan have found out to their dismay. A ban would involve India not participating in any international competition, including the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, with no funding from FIFA as well - which has implications at the grassroots level too.

The court-appointed CoA overseeing the administration of the AIFF have announced their intention to hold elections soon, but this must also pass muster with FIFA. There's a dark cloud of uncertainty that's overhead - it wouldn't be Indian football if there wasn't something to temper the positivity, eh?