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Back problem makes Chhetri doubtful starter in Merdeka opener | Football News

Sunil Chhetri is a doubtful starter against hosts Malaysia on Friday in the Merdeka invitation tournament where India return to after 22 years. Chhetri has a stiff back, according to a member of the national team squad. Chhetri, 39, has never played in this competition.

Sunil Chhetri might not start vs Malaysia.(PTI)
Sunil Chhetri might not start vs Malaysia.(PTI)

With Manvir Singh too doubtful due to injury, it is possible India will play a new pair upfront. Maybe this was the surprise head coach Igor Stimac spoke of. It is possible that Liston Colaco and Lallianzuala Chhangte will start as forwards if neither Chhetri nor Singh are declared fit on match day. Having recovered his form and confidence this season at Mohun Bagan Super Giant, Colaco, the team member said, has agreed to play in Chhetri’s place if needed.

Central defender Anwar Ali, who has starred for Mohun Bagan this term, too is unlikely to play in the tournament which has been reduced to three teams after Palestine pulled out due to the conflict with Israel. Ali has a hamstring problem and so may not be tried out even if India win on Friday and play Tajikistan for the trophy on Tuesday, the team member said over the phone from Kuala Lumpur. The member requested anonymity to protect relationships in the squad.

Also on the list of doubtful starters on fitness grounds are attacking midfielders Brandon Fernandes and Anirudh Thapa and left back Subhasish Bose. With the World Cup qualifiers next month, Stimac is unlikely to risk aggravating injuries in a tournament India have never won but were runners-up twice.

“We know of the history and importance of this tournament, and we will do everything in our power to win the two matches and lift the trophy for the first time, but we also need to be mindful of our challenges coming ahead,” said Stimac in a media release from the All India Football Federation (AIFF) on Thursday. “It is very important that we do not risk any injuries, as we have two very important World Cup qualifiers coming up in November.”

Stimac is likely to opt for banks of four in defence and midfield. If Thapa is not available, Rohit Kumar could slot in with Suresh Wangjam in central midfield with the wide positions being taken by Sahal Abdul Samad, whose club form at Mohun Bagan has been good and who played his first full match in over two years at the weekend against Chennaiyin FC, and Mahesh Naorem. Sandesh Jhingan and Mehtab Singh could start in central defence with Akash Mishra and Nikhil Poojary as the full backs.

Malaysia are ranked 132 to India’s 102 but Stimac said the hosts would start with an advantage. They are playing at home in front of what could a crowd of 85,000 and they are in the middle of a god run having won six and drawn two of the nine internationals in 2023. “They have… some wonderful homegrown players, who are very well supported by the naturalised players, so there is a lot of stability in the team at the moment,” said Stimac.

If regulation time does not produce clear winners, the match will go directly to tie-breakers. There will be no extra-time.

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