With players' injury worries diminishing, an upbeat national football coach Bob Houghton declared that India is well-prepared for Wednesday's opening match against Afghanistan in the AFC Challenge Cup in Hyderabad.
Houghton said he is happy that except for two players -- Steven Dias and Mahesh Gawli -- all others are match-fit and raring to go.
"The AFC Challenge Cup tournament is very important for India, because this kind of tournament will help improve Indian football. Also, because by winning this we will directly qualify for the 2011 Asian Cup. We are looking forward to play our best and win the tournament," he said at a press conference, in Hyderabad on Tuesday.
"During the SAFF Cup we had six key players in the injury list but now I am happy that except for Gawli and Steven all have recovered and this is good news for us," he added.
Houghton disclosed that reserve goalkeeper Arindam Bhattacharya and young striker Tarif Ahmed will not be named in the squad of 23 which will be registered for the eight-nation tournament, the second tier inter-nation competition of the continent.
Earlier, six players -- N S Manju, Sandip Nandi, Kuttimani, Manjit Singh, Rakesh Masih and Denzil Franco -- were left out of the original squad of 31 which attended the national camp in preparation for the tournament.
Central defender Gawli and nippy winger Dias will miss Wednesday's match, and in what could be a concern for the Indian team, rock-solid Gawli could even miss the group matches.
"Gawli and Dias will, for sure, miss the first match. I hope Steven will be fit for the second match against Tajikistan on August 1. Gawli may not be fit for that match or, may be, the last group match against Turkmenistan. But, I think he should be fit by the semi-finals," the home team's chief coach said.
"I know, including Mahesh in the squad is a risk but he is an important member of the squad and since he should be fit during the course of the tournament we cannot leave him out," he added.
The 60-year-old Englishman conceded that it was not "an ideal situation" that his key players were injured in the run-up to an important tournament, starting from the SAFF Cup in Sri Lanka and Maldives last month.
"Surkumar Singh has not played much football. If fit in the second match, Steven would be playing for the first time after the second match in SAFF Cup; Renedy and Ajayan have just recovered and Deepak Mondal has not played much football. It is not an ideal situation but this can happen in international teams," he said, trying to allay fears that the situation could be like the SAFF Cup, which saw many leading players miss out because of injury.
The former Fulham midfielder was also critical of the AFC match schedule for the tournament and not sure whether a good crowd would turn up at the Gachibowli stadium to cheer the national teamm, like in the Nehru Cup triumph in New Delhi last August.
"Support of the home crowd would be an important factor for our hopes to win the tournament as had happened in the Nehru Cup in New Delhi. But I don't know how many people would actually turn up at the venue (at the Gachibowli Stadium)," Houghton said.
Earlier, most of the matches were scheduled to be held at the Lal Bahadur Stadium in the heart of the city, which could attract large crowds, but due to poor ground conditions there the AFC shifted the main venue to Gachibowli stadium, which is at the outskirts of the city.
Houghton, who was severe in his criticism about the condition of practice venues on Monday after his team was made to train on a "substandard ground" at the Goshamil Police grounds, said the occasion was not right to discuss the poor infrastructural facilities in India.
"This is not the proper forum to discuss what are the drawbacks about Indian football. I can discuss it at another time. We should now focus on the tournament," he said.
Coach of the Sri Lankan team, runners-up in the first edition of the tournament in 2006, Jang Jung said he has come to India with more or less the same side that played in the SAFF Cup at home last month.
Defending champions Tajikistan also have injury worries, with their key player Ibrahim Rabimov -- the most valuable player in the first edition in 2006 -- carrying an ankle injury. But coach Pulod Kodirov promised a strong title defence by his side.
"Ibrahim is injured, but we will play our best to defend the title," said Kodirov.
He said the tournament will see unknown teams playing each other and thus would be difficult to chalk out strategies for each match.
"I know India had toured Portugal before this tournament but, frankly, I don't know much about Indian football nor do I know about your captain Baichung Bhutia," he replied when asked about the talismanic Indian skipper.