India begin their AFC Women’s Asian Cup campaign against Iran on January 20.

With less than a week left for the AFC Women’s Asian Cup India 2022 to kick-off, Blue Tigresses Head Coach Thomas Dennerby stated that the Blue Tigresses are “feeling good” ahead of their opening match against IR Iran on January 20, 2022.

“We aim to get into the quarterfinals which is our primary target. If we qualify to the last-eight – anything, and everything can happen. The quarterfinals are a knockout stage, and all teams will be under pressure. Looking ahead, we feel it’s a realistic target that we can achieve. But let’s take it step by step,” the head coach maintained.

“We have played different teams, different levels of teams, and different playing styles. We learned in Brazil wherein we played three games in a span of seven days with two days in between – a similar format to the group stage of the AFC Women’s Asian Cup India 2022,” the coach opined.

“It allowed us to regain 100 percent of energy, and get back to prime fitness. We have defended well most of the times, but there have been few seconds wherein there has been a lapse in our concentration, and once such a wrong step will be enough for best teams to hurt us badly,” Thomas Dennerby explained.

“In the group stage, we play three different teams who have three different playing styles. The match against Iran will be an extremely tough opener for us. We need to be extremely sharp to thwart their counters, and to deal with their set-pieces,” he predicted.

“We have tried different players in different positions. When you go into such a big tournament, there can be injuries. So you need to keep all players prepared, and that everybody stays ready.”

The contingent has been in preparatory camps under Thomas Dennerby since August 2021 in Jamshedpur, and have been training in Kochi since the first week of December 2021. The Indian women have, in the process, also travelled to 6 countries in 2021 which included exposure tours to Brazil, Sweden, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Bahrain and the UAE.

“We have had quite a long preparation, and it’s been more than 5 months that we have been together. We have sweated in over 200 different sessions including football sessions, running sessions, games against proper teams, working on different styles, and strength and conditioning sessions. We are feeling good,” Dennerby averred.

Thomas Dennerby however, didn’t go deep to name any particular player whom he foresees to play a crucial role.

“For us the support staff, all 23 players are of equal importance. I hope all players are raring to go and make a mark on the field. Of course, we can only bring 11 into the starting line-up. But it also happens what the game situation is all about, and how we need to react to it. Everyone has a role to play, and needs to be ready,” the Coach added.

Dennerby has experience of over 30 years in coaching several National squads with much success. He had guided Sweden’s women’s national team to a 3rd-place finish in the FIFA World Cup in 2011, and a quarter-final spot in the 2012 London Olympics.

He also served as the Head Coach of the Nigerian women’s national team wherein he coached the Super Falcons to the 2019 FIFA women’s World Cup. He also helped the Nigerian women to win the AWCON Award 2018, and was awarded the 2018 Coach of the Year in Nigeria.

Referring to the absence of Sangita Basfore, and Bala Devi, Thomas Dennerby opined that “it’s sad for the individuals, but we cannot be thinking much about it.”

“We have around 4 players who have been unfortunately out of the campaign nursing various injuries. There are 4 players whom we couldn’t pick. But as a coach I need to push all my energy on the players who are available, and my job is to support the 23 who are here,” the Coach pronounced.

India have been drawn against IR Iran (January 20), Chinese Taipei (January 23) and China PR (January 26) in Group A of the competition. The top two from each of the three groups, along with the two best second-placed teams from the groups will make it to the quarterfinals.

Even as the four semi-finalists earn a direct slot to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, all the losing quarterfinalists make it to the play-offs for the Continental play-offs for the last possible slot from Asia.

Ashalata Devi eyes history at AFC Women’s Asian Cup

India Women’s team captain Ashalata Devi put emphasis on the “strong bonding” that has developed between the younger players and the senior ones ahead of the AFC Women’s Asian Cup India 2022.

“When I was a young player in the team, I used to ask the senior players a lot of questions,” she said. “If we don’t share and communicate, the bonding never develops. So we make it a point to talk to each other often,” she maintained.

“Even if I am not the best person to deal with a particular matter, I will direct them to the best person to solve it,” added Ashalata.

The official squad of 23 has as many as 15 players under the age of 25 with the average age of the team being 23.13, and Ashalata has taken the lead in integrating them into the squad.

“We are guiding the young players on and off the field, sharing our experiences, giving tips and advising them on how to maintain professionalism,” stated Ashalata. “The youngsters coming through are comfortable with us and that will help them perform better.”

Even as the four semi-finalists earn a direct slot to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, all the losing quarterfinalists make it to the play-offs for the Continental play-offs for the last possible slot from Asia.

The Imphal-born defender is raring to play on the big stage ever since she heard that India was hosting it.

“It was always a dream to represent India in such big tournaments and we are aiming to qualify for the quarterfinals and create history by qualifying for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup,” asserted Ashalata.

Having been a part of the national set-up for over a decade, Ashalata was even nominated for the AFC Women’s Player of the Year in 2019. Over the same years, she has played with Indian football legends like Oinam Bembem Devi but she refused to compare her current team-mates with previous ones.

“I cannot say that this is the best squad I have been a part of until we play in the tournament,” she quipped. “It is how you perform in that tournament which matters and that is what would make it the best.”

“There is pressure to perform in every tournament and I believe you cannot play without it,” she concluded. “It is how you handle it that matters and we have learnt to deal with it.”

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