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Thomas Dennerby hopes for minimum of 10 games before AFC Asian Cup, reveals Bala Devi could miss tournament

While the pandemic has affected normal life, senior women’s footballers from India continue to toil hard on the pitch with an eye on the upcoming 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup.

The biggest continental tournament will be hosted in India from 20 January to 6 February and the home team has been in a national camp in Jamshedpur for three weeks now preparing for the tournament under new coach Thomas Dennerby.

Dennerby, who was earlier in charge of the Indian U-17 women’s World Cup squad, took over as the coach from Maymol Rocky in early August to help India prepare for the tournament. And the national camp remains his best bet to get the players ready for the continental meet as the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted India’s chances of getting international games.

India travelled to Turkey and Uzbekistan earlier this year for a total of five international games, but the last of them came on 8 April. The 62-year-old Swedish coach feels India need to play at least 10 games against a variety of opponents ahead of the tournament.

“It’s very important for us to play games, before the tournament starts we hope to play 11-13 games. The federation is working very hard, trying to help us but it’s tough for us to find opponents. Still in some countries, India is red marked,” said Dennerby during a virtual press conference.

“We need to play some teams which are a little bit weaker to implement attacking ideas and (need) some games against equal teams. It is also important to find opponents who are a little bit better, who will help us to speed up the pace of the game, the decision making, the passing and receiving and all that you need to do. At least we need to play not less than 10 games before the tournament starts and we need to play different types of opponents with different styles,” he added.

Another major factor that has impacted the team’s preparation is the lack of club football. The top division Indian women’s League has not been hosted since the 2019-20 season. However, it has been reported that the senior Women’s National Football Championship will be hosted by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) before the Asian Cup.

Dennerby, who coached Sweden to a third-place finish at the 2011 World Cup, said he will be using the national championship to scout more players and further changes can be made to the team.

“AIFF has a really good scouting organisation and they call regularly to inform us about players who can come in…At least by early November we need to take a decision that this is the best 27 players we have and we need to go with them but until that time we will try different players, so players will come in and go out,” he said.

On what is the team aiming to achieve at the tournament, the former Nigeria women’s football team coach said they are eyeing the quarter-finals.

“We will put in a huge effort to reach the knock-out stage that means going into the quarter-finals and if we can do that it will be successful tournament for us. But we also know that we will be playing (against) good opponents.”

Dennerby also revealed that star player Bala Devi, the first women footballer from India to earn a professional contract abroad with Scottish club Rangers FC, is facing a race against time to be fit for the Asian Cup. Bala is currently back home after suffering a knee injury

“She (Bala) is not with us here at the camp because of the ACL injury. A knee injury normally takes a couple of months (to recover), so for her, it is a really tough situation to be ready for Asian Cup,” the coach said.

Thomas Dennerby hopes for minimum of 10 games before AFC Asian Cup reveals Bala Devi could miss tournament

Bala Devi celebrates after scoring for Rangers against Spartans. Twitter@RangersWFC

India will be hosting the AFC Women’s Asian Cup for the second time, after the 1979 edition. They last took part in the final round of the competition in 2003 and qualified for the upcoming event as hosts. India finished as the runners-up in the 1979 and 1983 editions.

The continental event will feature 12 teams, expanded from eight in the previous edition. It will comprise of three groups of four teams. Eight sides will qualify for the newly-introduced quarter-finals.

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