Talismanic striker Sunil Chhetri "may be playing the last season" of his illustrious career, feels Indian football team head coach Igor Stimac, who is hoping that his star player would be saving his best for the last in the coming months.
India's next big assignment is the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar from January 12 to February 10 next year. The 38-year-old Chhetri is set to play in his third continental showpiece, the most by an Indian, after playing a pivotal role in the qualification tournament here last year.
"At his age, this will probably be his farewell from football. Obviously, Sunil may be playing his last season, and definitely his last Asian Cup," Stimac said.
"I'm quite sure that the upcoming months will be the best for Sunil Chhetri," he was quoted as saying in the official All India Football Federation (AIFF) website.
The national team is currently having a five-day camp here ahead of the Tri-Nation Football Tournament in Imphal from March 22.
Chhetri, the third most prolific international goal scorer among active players with 84 strikes behind Cristiano Ronaldo (118) and Lionel Messi (98), was part of the Indian teams that featured in the 2011 and 2019 Asian Cup.
The 38-year-old Chhetri, who made his international debut in 2005, played a key role in Bengaluru FC making to Indian Super League final to be played on Saturday.
"Sunil Chhetri was nowhere to be seen this season. He was on the bench, waiting, preparing himself, working to take his weight down a few kilos, which is very difficult to handle at this age," said Stimac who has been given the target of reaching Asian Cup quarterfinals if he wants to continue at the helm beyond that tournament.
"But when it was most needed, he was there for his club, helping them, and taking them to the finals. He scored the most decisive goals."
With 10 months to go for the Asian Cup, the 106-ranked Blue Tigers will play their first international match since September when they take on higher ranked Kyrgyz Republic (94) and Myanmar (159) in the international tournament in Imphal.
India drew 1-1 against Singapore and capped a 0-3 loss to Vietnam in their last international matches.
Along with Chhetri, the Indian team has also ageing stars in central-defender Sandesh Jhingan and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, and Stimac is well aware of the likely change in the core group of players in the near future.
"We need to understand that some of them are of a certain age now. It's difficult to say, but goodbyes need to come sometime," the 1998 World Cup bronze medallist Croatian said.
"Along with him (Chhetri), Sandesh (Jhingan) and Gurpreet (Singh Sandhu) are the core strength of our team. I've never hidden that. I was never running away from the truth.
"They are free guys, with great characters, strong mindsets and a good mentality, which is a basic platform for us to build the team around. But of course, we need to keep their age in mind. Gurpreet and Sandesh may be there for four, or five years," he added.
'Asian Cup spots are available for everyone'
For someone who has always preferred to take his players from the top tier of the domestic structure, Stimac said he would look at all the players involved in Indian football be it Santosh Trophy or the I-League.
"The competition for places in the final squad for the Asian Cup will go all the way until the end. The spots are open for everyone with an Indian passport, and not only those involved in the Hero ISL." "Our focus now is on all players involved in Indian Football – whether it is the Santosh Trophy or the I-League.
"Our scouting team will go everywhere in the next eight-nine months to watch everyone. We're going to give an opportunity to all those who we think might help us in the Asian Cup," the coach added.
AIFF President Kalyan Chaubey had recently said that all the competitions in the country, including Santosh Trophy, should be considered for national team selection. On India's opponents in the Tri-Nation tournament, the coach said both Kyrgyz Republic and Myanmar would be challenging.
"Myanmar are the lower-ranked one but they have changed their approach to the game in the last few years. They try to play middle-press football, which could be challenging," Stimac said.
"Kyrgyz Republic are a very well-organised side and play very good quality football. They played wonderful football against such a strong and competitive side Russia. It's going to be very interesting.
"We are the hosts, and we're going to do absolutely everything to win the tournament." The national team players in the ISL finalists sides ATK Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC will join the camp on March 19. The team will leave for Imphal on March 21.
"Obviously, it's not going to be easy because we've got a lot of players who will be involved in the ISL final, who will be physically and mentally exhausted.
"Half of them will be in a worse position because they will be defeated in the final. And my job is to regenerate them, help them bounce back and find the strength and ability to play these two games and represent India in a good way," he added.