India banks on Baichung Bhutia

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src='' class='caption'> The Indian football team plays as many as 15 matches this year and with no exceptional striker coming through the ranks, the onus will again be on Bhutia.

Updated: July 11, 2007 12:09 IST
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India's failure to score against not just the likes of Japan and Saudi Arabia but even minnows like Fiji in the past season has seen the team plummeting to as low as 165th in the FIFA rankings.

They play as many as 15 matches this year, and with no exceptional striker coming up through the ranks, the onus will again be on Baichung Bhutia.

It isn't surprising to see him wince a little and go through his paces a little more gingerly than the juniors at the camp in Gurgaon.

But that's not only because Baichung Bhutia's body has suffered much wear and tear over the last 12 years, but also because he missed a number of games last season with a long-standing knee-injury.

A long-standing critic of India's laborious domestic schedule, the national skipper believes Coach Bob Houghton's philosophy of not stretching his players too hard is working for him, considering how rusty all the players are.

"Not fully fit, obviously. It's been a month's break, and we've just come back. You know it's just been about three days of training, so it's still pre-season for me. I'm still working on my fitness, working hard and competing with all the young players," said Baichung Bhutia, Indian football captain.

His pace may have slowed, but what hasn't changed for a decade is his position as the attacking spearhead, and the lack of support for him from the other forwards.

India have struggled to score even once against not just the big Asian nations, but also the second-string ones, more so in the past season.

"Yes, ever since I M Vijayan has left, there's been a big vacuum in his place. But I think there are a couple of young players coming up very well. I think the confidence-level is what they need to work on. Because that's where I think even the chief coach would struggle, you know, when you start playing 90 minutes on the field, you've got to be very confident, very positive," Bhutia said.

The Coach, on his part, is relying on the likes of the NFL's highest scorer Sunil Chhetri and young Tarif Ahmed to provide their skipper some much-needed backup. But it's a plan that has an inherent problem.

"we're not big and strong, and attacking and physically brilliant," said Bob Houghton, Chief Coach, Indian Football Team.

The statistics tell their own story. India have struggled to score without their talismanic striker Baichung Bhutia. He appears to be fully fit now, but again, if India was to play a few internationals without him, its resources up front will be stretched.

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