The Blue Tigresses will be in action from the opening day of the tournament when they take on Iran.

India is set to host the AFC Women’s Asian Cup after a long hiatus of 43 years, during which the nation has undergone a lot of changes. From being one of the top-five nations across the continent in the early 1980s, India has since witnessed a decline in performances. However, the team has recently given some strong displays, beating the likes of Bahrain and Chinese Taipei in the last few months.

The tournament will be played in a bio-bubble across three venues – DY Patil Sports Stadium, Mumbai Football Arena and Shree Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex, starting January 20. A total of 12 teams from the continent will be participating in the tournament, with perennial heavyweights Australia and China and reigning champions Japan starting as favourites.

The 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup will also act as the final stage of qualification for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Five teams will qualify directly for the World Cup via the knockout stage (including play-offs for fifth place or possibly sixth place). Two more teams will advance to the inter-confederation play-offs.

A brief

Before delving on India, let’s take a look at the tournament’s roster and its history. The teams are divided into a group of three for the group stages.

Group A

India, China PR, Chinese Taipei, Iran.

Group B

Australia, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia

Group C

Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar

China is the most successful team in the history of the competition, lifting the trophy eight times. Chinese Taipei and Korea Republic have won it three times each, while Japan has won the last two editions. Australia, New Zealand and Thailand have all won the title once.

India’s performances in Women’s Asian Cup

India has finished as finalists on two occasions, in 1979 and 1983, and finished on third in 1981. Back then, the tournament was played every two years. It was made quadrennial only after the 2010 edition. In 1979, Chinese Taipei defeated India 2-0 at the EMS Stadium in Kozhikode. Shukla Dutta, Yolanda D’Souza and Shanti Mullick played key roles in that tournament.

Two years later, India lost the semi-finals against Thailand in a close encounter, with Budsara Rungsawai scoring the only goal of the game. In the third-place match, the Tigresses defeated Hong Kong 2-0, with Shukla Dutta and Socorina Pereira delivering the goods. Thailand came back to haunt India in 1983 again, winning the final 3-0 at home in Bangkok.

This will be the first time India will participate in the tournament since 2003, in which it exited in the group stages. So far, the two-time finalists have played 36 times in the tournament, winning 16 and drawing three games. They have scored 63 times, and have a goal difference of +2.

Preparations

Thomas Dennerby, who was earlier in charge of the Indian U-17 women’s World Cup squad, took over the senior national team in mid-August. Since then, the team has played 11 matches, with exposure tours in United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sweden, and Brazil. They have also had extensive training camps in Jharkhand and Kochi among others.

On 15th and 17th December 2021, the national team played two friendlies against the All-Star Team in Kochi, winning both comprehensively with 4-0 and a 3-0 margins respectively. Prior to that, India participated in the 2021 International Women’s Football Tournament of Manaus held in Brazil. They faced Venezuela, Chile and Brazil. Against the Samba nation, 19-year-old Manisha Kalyan scored to make history. The team, however, failed to win any game but gained loads of experience.

In two friendlies against Swedish clubs Hammarby IF and Djurgardens IF, the team performed well. However, they failed to win any of the games, the matches ending 3-2 and 1-0. In the preceding tour, India had defeated Bahrain 5-0 and Chinese Taipei 1-0. Indumathi Kathiresan and Pyari Xaxa were the highlights of this tournament for the team.

Coaching Staff

Thomas Dennerby
Dennerby has also coached the Nigerian women’s team (Courtesy: AIFF Media)

The coaching team is headed by former Swedish player Thomas Dennerby, who has in the past managed Hammarby IF and the Nigerian Women’s Team. He took Nigeria to the 2019 Women’s World Cup, and the team also managed to reach the knockout stage. The 62-year-old has always maintained that taking India to the knockout stages is his primary target.

He is assisted by Assistant coach Priya Parathi Valappil, who has in the past managed the India U-19 Women’s team and knows the strengths and the weaknesses of the players well. Since the arrival of former Swedish footballer Jane Tornqvist as the strength and conditioning coach, the team has been going from strength to strength in terms of physicality and stamina. Rajat Guha as goalkeeping coach completes the quartet.

Squad

Goalkeepers: Aditi Chauhan (1), Maibam Linthoingambi Devi (23), Sowmiya Narayanasamy (19).

Defenders: Dalima Chhibber (17), Sweety Devi Ngangbam (2), Ritu Rani (21), Loitongbam Ashalata Devi (4), Manisa Panna (3), Hemam Shilky Devi (5), Sanju Yadav (8).

Midfielders: Yumnam Kamala Devi (6), Anju Tamang (9), Karthika Angamuthu (20), Nongmeithem Ratanbala Devi (7), Naorem Priyangka Devi (14), Indumathi Kathiresan (12).

Forwards: Manisha Kalyan (16), Grace Dangmei (11), Pyari Xaxa (10), Renu (15), Sumati Kumari (22), Sandhiya Ranganathan (13), Mariyammal Balamurugan (18)

(Jersey numbers are in brackets. The team is missing Bala Devi and Sangita Bansfore due to injuries)

Formation

India lineup Women's Asian Cup
Here’s how India could lineup at AFC Women’s Asian Cup

Thomas Dennerby is likely to go with a traditional 4-4-2, with Aditi Chauhan manning the sticks. The experienced No. 1 has the distinction of playing for West Ham United Ladies. She also won the Indian Women’s League with Gokulam Kerala. To help her in keeping the goals away, captain Ashalata Devi and Sweety Devi will be the central defenders.

The pair will be flanked by Dalima Chhibber on the right and Sanju Yadav on the left. Chhibber is one of the senior members of the squad, and also the set-piece expert. Up ahead, Indumathi Kathiresan, Kamala Devi Yumnam, Ratanbala Devi and Anju Tamang are likely to make the cut, with Indumathi and Kamala Devi taking the central positions with Anju and Ratanbala Devi flanking the wings.

Up top, exciting prospect Manisha Kalyan starts with either Pyrai Xaxa or Grace Dangmei.           

Players to watch out for

Aditi Chauhan

Aditi Chauhan
Chauhan won the last Women’s league title with Gokulam Kerala (Courtesy: GKFC Media)

With 49 matches under her belt, Aditi is one of the most experienced campaigners in the national team. In 2015, she became the first Indian woman to play competitive football in England when she signed for West Ham United. After her stint with the Hammers, she signed up for Icelandic club Hamar Hveragerdi, but the COVID-19 pandemic played spoilsport. She has a massive responsibility and India will look up to her.

Ashalata Devi

India’s rock at the back, Ashalata Devi’s is also the team’s most experienced member with 64 appearances. She is easily the country’s best ball-playing defender, and her composed performances in recent times have been vital. At 28, she’s at the peak of her career and is arguably one of the finest defenders in Asia. The Sethu FC defender played crucial roles in India’s ascent to the second round of the Tokyo Olympic qualifiers. She will be aiming for a strong tournament.

Kamala Devi

Kamala Devi
Kamala is making her return to the national team (Courtesy: AIFF Media)

In absence of Bala Devi, Kamala Devi will hold the key to unlocking opposition defences for the Women in Blue. She is equally adept at creating and scoring and in absence of the Rangers’ midfielder, is the highest scorer of the team. Kamala will be India’s main central threat from open play. At the 2014 Asian Games, she scored five goals in India’s first match against Maldives. It will be interesting to see how Dennerby uses her versatile skills.

Manisha Kalyan

Winning the 2020-21 AIFF Emerging Player of the Year Award, Manisha has proven why she’s regarded highly by fans across the nation. She already has two ‘firsts’ to her name – she became the first woman to score in a top-flight Asian competition when she scored in the 2021 AFC Women’s Club Championship match against FC Bunyodkor for Gokulam. She’s also the only Indian woman to score against a top-10 nation, when she found the net against Brazil on 26 November 2021. High hopes ride on her.

Fixtures

India Group AFC Women's Asian Cup
India’s fixtures in the group stages at AFC Women’s Asian Cup

What to expect

The national team have had several grueling training sessions of four-five hours on a regular basis under the watchful eyes of Swedish head coach Dennerby. The team has been constantly working on its defensive sturdiness and attacking dynamics and can be expected to be less porous. As mentioned by the head coach, the knockouts will be a realistic target and for that, the team will need to put in inspired performances against Iran and Chinese Taipei.

Add to that a bit of luck, and who knows where these women could land!

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