Indian women’s football team is ready for its biggest test in years as they play the AFC Women’s Asian Cup, starting January 20. India are playing in the tournament that they have not qualified for since 2006 by virtue of being the hosts. Ahead of the tournament, the U-17 team coach Thomas Dennerby took over as the senior team coach and has now worked with the squad for over five months.
Coach Dennerby has had over 200 sessions with the team that includes football, strength and game sessions, matches against tough teams and the ones with a defensive style too.
Dennerby said in the media interaction ahead of the tournament,
“We finally think we are really well prepared now. We’ve developed a lot since we started and hopefully, we will see that in the games,”
Dennerby reiterated that making the quarter-finals is their first “realistic” target and feels if they make the last eight, the pressure of that stage can always make the results unpredictable.
The players are definitely gearing up for the biggest games of their lives but captain Ashalata Devi said that pressure is always there and it is their job to handle it.
“All players dream to play at this stage and when we heard that India are going to host the Asian Cup, we were excited and want to take it forward. This is the biggest tournament of my life and I want to see if we can put our best foot forward,”
The team’s youngest player 16-year-old Shilky Devi feels it is a good opportunity for the team and for her to learn from the seniors and take that experience to the FIFA U-17 World Cup, which will take place later this year.
The average age of the Indian team is 23.13 and Ashalata said that as a unit, they have focussed on the future. As a senior player she said,
“I try to guide the players and I want to take them to the right path. I share with them about practice and how to lead a professional life. All the youngsters coming in are I think comfortable with us and are able to perform well.”
She shared about the time when she joined the senior team as a junior and had the likes of Bembem Devi, Tababi Devi and Bala Devi to help her out and now she tries to do the same for the youngsters in the team.
Dennerby said that by now they have played teams of different levels and styles, which should put them in good stead. He added that in Brazil, the team played high intensity games in quick succession, which emulated how it is going to be during the Asian Cup.
“Your fitness level has to be high so that you come to each and every game fully focussed and with 100 per cent energy. Technical points – some of them played very well for a longer period of time but still just a moment of lost focus is enough for good teams to hurt your badly. Everybody now understands the importance of staying focussed for 90 to 95 minutes, whatever it is, that is most important. We defended well for a long period of time but the last two games in Brazil told us that we need to work on our attacking game and have a bit more confidence with the ball. Hopefully we can be comfortable with the ball and build up play,”
Dennerby has been experimenting with the backline, trying out a back 5 during the Brazil tour. In that formation, Sanju Yadav played the role of the right wing back in absence of a natural wing back in the team.
“We have tried different players but when we do this, it’s not just for trying but we have a good picture of how we will come for the game. When you go for such a big tournament, you can have injuries unfortunately then you need all players to be ready, which is why we have made changes. We have a good picture before the first game.”
Dennerby chose not to dwell on the fact the team is missing two excellent players in Bala Devi and Sangita Basfore due to injuries but said as a coach, he focusses his energy on the players who are available for him.
Dennerby broke down the opponents and said the first game against Iran will be very tough because they have a compact defence and a good striker to facilitate counter attack.
“As a defender you always have to be alert because they can catch on the counter. We will try to dominate the game with possession but they are good with set pieces too so we have to be sharp there and not give them easy corners and free kicks.”
He said Chinese Taipei should be an open game and that the team has played them once and won should be of help.
China, he stated, would be the toughest of all the games but they will go with the aim of winning.
Dennerby announced the squad is free of injuries and all the players will be available for selection for the first game. But ahead of the first game, a player and a member of support staff tested positive for Covid-19. Reports suggest that the player who caught the virus was a starter.