AFC Asian Cup 2022: Over 200 sessions to chase football history - Thomas Dennerby leads India's preparations

Thomas Dennerby has overseen a promising rise in the Indian Women's Football team's fortunes. Catherine Ivill - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Over 200 sessions in about five months, is how head coach Thomas Dennerby describes the intense preparation of the Indian Women's Football team ahead of the 2022 AFC Asian Women's Cup to be held in India from next week.

It is a big number, perhaps an approximation on the higher side. Yet, it reflects the efforts put in by the hosts for a competitive show in the continent's top prize and perhaps equally crucially, a chance for a FIFA World Cup slot.

"We have had quite a long preparation, it's been more than five months that we have been together. We had over 200 different sessions including football, running, games against proper teams in different styles. We finally feel that we are well prepared now, we see that the team has developed a lot since we started. Hopefully we will also see that when it's time to play games," said Dennerby, ahead of India's tournament opener against Iran on 20 January in Navi Mumbai.

While confident in the work his team has put in, the coach is also realistic about the expectations from the tournament. It is not going to be an easy outing by any chance - with India grouped with China, Iran, and Chinese Taipei.

Dennerby noted that his team's primary aim was to make the quarterfinals, saying, "When we started, we said that to reach quarter-final is our first target and if we come there, anything can happen because it is a knockout stage and all teams will play under pressure. We don't talk so much about going further but the quarterfinal is our target and we think it's a realistic one."

The top two teams from each of the three groups and the two best third-placed teams advance. While the four semi-finalists book a direct berth for the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup, the losing quarterfinalists have a chance at the continental play-offs.

A crucial part of India's preparation have been the exposure tours to six countries (Brazil, Sweden, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Bahrain and the UAE) in 2021 and gaining game time against Brazil, Venezuela and the like.

Dennerby explained that the biggest takeaway from these game were focus, fitness and recovery - the latter two being attributes that could be decisive in the Asian Cup.

"We have played teams with different levels and playing styles. In Brazil, when we played three games with two days in between, same as here [the Asian Cup], we learned that we really need to be 100% in fitness levels," he explained.

"On the technical front, some things were good at times... we defended very well for longer times during the game but losing even a little bit of focus and putting one step wrong is enough for the best teams to hurt you badly. Everyone now understands the importance of staying focussed for 90 to 98 minutes, whatever it will be. That is most important because for really long times we defended well."

"Honestly, in the last two games in Brazil we also found out that we have to work a bit more on our attacking game, have more confidence with the ball and to not be stressed even if you play good teams. We have been working on that since we got back home and hopefully we will be more comfortable in play," he added.

The confidence factor he mentioned, will play a big role when the team takes the field in Mumbai. Iran and China are tough opponents and while India did beat Chinese Taipei in October, the friendly didn't have the pressure of a big tournament. Dennerby was honest in his assessment of the opponents:

"We are playing three different teams with three different playing styles. The first game against Iran will be a really tough one for us because [from] what we have seen so far, they defend very well. They are organised and they will play low, defending. They also have one really good striker that's always on the run. So, even if we maybe dominate the game, as a defender you always have to be on your toes because they can always counter attack. They are also good on set pieces, they scored a lot of goals on free-kicks and corners, so we also need to be very sharp," he said.

Dennerby believes India's second game against Chinese Taipei will be an "equal game" unlike the final match against former champions China.

"China, I will say from my point of view; classical Asian style with a lot of short passes with good combinations. It is going to be a tough one, of course, but still China is not at the level they were a couple of years ago when they won this tournament. But still, [they are] a very good team and probably the toughest game for us," he said.

The 23-member Indian squad named this week is a young bunch, with 15 players aged 25 and under, while also missing the services of the injured Bala Devi. However, Dennerby was confident that the hosts will be fielding their best unit, having "a good picture" of how they will line-up in the first game.

India, who reached Mumbai from the national camp in Kochi on Thursday, were set to start practising after clearing the protocols. "Our preparation before in Jamshedpur and Kochi has been good, so we are on the right track," Dennerby said. In exactly a week, the fruits of these months of training and tour will be tested on field as India fight for the continent's biggest prize and a shot at football history.