India start their campaign in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup today against the mighty Australians. And the match will mark India's return to the continental stage after 27 long years.
India trained like never before in its history with the squad kept together for over six months, the federation paying the players their salaries and taking them out of the club system with training of two months each in Portugal and Dubai plus international friendlies to prepare them for the Asian Cup.
But with the tournament set to kickoff India continues to face injury problems. The biggest worry remains captain Baichung Bhutia's calf muscle and he is not only the captain of the team, but their talisman and him being out would have been a big blow for India. Now due to the suspension of Sushil Kumar Singh for the first couple of matches it forced Bob Houghton to rethink his plans and include Mohammed Rafi in the squad to have a third striker in the team with Baichung likely only an option against South Korea in match three for 15 to 20 minutes. India is already missing Anthony Pereira, Samir Naik and Arindam Bhattacharya due to injuries and now the surprise information of the suspension of striker Sushil Kumar Singh, who received a red card in last years AFC Challenge Cup against North Korea.
The task on hand is massive for India in facing Australia, Bahrain and South Korea in Group C. All India Football Federation Vice-President and the teams Chef de Mission Subrata Dutta said, "We are sure to put up a good quality performance. And I am sure all the spectators, all the lovers of the game, would appreciate our quality of the game."
India's only footballer playing abroad is striker Sunil Chhetri in the MLS and taking about his fitness Sunil said, "I was off for about one and a half months with an ankle injury, but I am fine now as I've been training for the last two weeks. The whole team is looking good and whoever is playing tomorrow will give his best."
And coming to talk about India's potential star performers a lot of attention is on goalkeeper Subrata Pal and his defence. About his namesake Subrata Dutta said, "Since our opponents are really strong there will be a lot of pressure on our goalkeeper – Subrata Pal, who is our first goalkeeper. And I am sure he is going to put up a very good show and he will come under the limelight. He is really a very good goalkeeper for us."
It is only hours to go for the match and hopefully the players will have had a good nights sleep before the game starts tomorrow at 16.15 local time at the Al Sadd Stadium.