New Delhi,(PTI) Glorifying Sunil Chhetri's voracious appetite for scoring in superlatives, former captain Bhaichung Bhutia says the talismanic striker will be crucial to the Indian football team's prospects in the 2019 Asian Cup.
One short of appearing in his 100th international game, Chhetri's silken touch was on full display in the Intercontinental Cup-opener against Chinese Taipei, as the skipper recorded a hat-trick with aplomb.
"Though we have an easier draw than last time. Clearing the round robin stage looks realistic for us this time. Sunil will obviously be expected to play a crucial role. It's important that he is fit and at his prime. He has done exceptionally well for his country and club," Bhutia told PTI.
The last time India participated in the Asian Cup, they were hammered by the likes of South Korea, Australia and Bahrain.
"This time, definitely, we have a much better chance. I am confident that our team would qualify from the group. The players have done really well over the last many months and they will look to carry forward the momentum," said Bhutia.
A leg injury marred Bhutia's campaign in Doha seven years ago. Consequently, he missed the team's first two matches against Australia and Bahrain and came on as a second-half substitute in the final group stage match against South Korea.
That still rankles the 'Sikkimese Sniper'.
Now, India are paired alongside hosts UAE, Bahrain and Thailand.
Tomorrow's game against Kenya will be Chhetri's 100th in the international arena. He will become the second man in the Indian football history to reach the milestone, Bhutia, with 100 appearances, being the other.
"Playing 100 matches for your country is a huge achievement. I welcome him to the elite club. He has been one of the most sincere and focussed footballers I have come across," said Bhutia who had combined with Chhetri to form one of Indian football's most potent striking duos.
Former skipper Bhutia, who served India with distinction for more than a decade and a half and scored 40 goals, recalled his playing days with Chhetri.
Both would speak in the same language, which made things a "lot easier, according to the 41-year-old Bhutia.
Bhutia has been the torchbearer of Indian football till he passed on the baton to Chhetri, who is eight years younger to the former captain.
"He has accomplished everything with sheer hard work. His has got amazing ability to read match situations, it's actually unparalleled," Bhutia added.
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