New Delhi:Aiming for a title hat-trick under coach Bob Houghton but hampered by lack of international match exposure, defending champions India will bid for a second consecutive Nehru Cup, taking on Lebanon in a tricky opener of the five-nation tournament here on Wednesday.
Under Houghton, India won the 2007 edition of the Nehru Cup before clinching the AFC Challenge Cup at home, which gave the country a berth in the elite AFC Asian Cup, to be held in Doha in January 2011, after 24 years.
The Nehru Cup will give Houghton a chance to test his boys how they measure up to at least two quality sides -- Syria and Lebanon -- who are now vying for a place in the Asian Cup.
Bhaichung Bhutia and Co. are a confident lot after a seven-week training tour of Dubai and Barcelona. They played friendly games against Spanish third division sides in their month-long sojourn in Barcelona where they used top class facilities at Nou Camp.
The sore point though would be the lack of international fixtures. The Indians played their last such match in January though Houghton claimed that the Spanish third division sides "were of our level".
Houghton himself picked last edition runners-up Syria as the favourites to win the tournament at the Ambedkar Stadium, considering that the West Asians are inside top 100 in FIFA rankings at 95th and have beaten sides like China besides drawing Korea this year.
Having come without six regular international players, including a star striker, Syria may not be that formidable but their coach Fajir Ibrahim said he wants to win the tournament to boost the team's morale for the ongoing 2011 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers, which resumes in November.
"This tournament is a part of our preparations for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. We have won two out of two matches in the qualifiers. We are not targetting the Nehru Cup title but obviously we want to win as it would give us a morale booster," Ibrahim said.
"India are the team to beat for us. They are the defending champions and they have the home advantage," he added.
India though, do not want to think beyond the tournament opener against Lebanon. A win against Lebanon would give the home team a big chance to go into the final on August 31 as two other sides -- Kyrgyzstan and Sri Lanka -- in the five-team round-robin are comparatively weaker sides.
Lebanon though would be a tough team to beat even though they would be without four regular national players, including Ramez Dayoub, who signed up with Kolkata giants East Bengal this season.
"Lebanon are a good side. In our last two meetings with them we lost 1-4 and drew 2-2 (in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers in October 2007). So, our first match tomorrow is very important," Houghton said.
The India Squad:
Goalkeepers: Subrata Pal, Subhashish Roy Chowdhury.
Defenders: NS Manju, Anwar, Deepak Mondal, Mahesh Gawli, Surkumar Singh, Gouramangi Singh, Samir Naik, Mehrajuddin Wadoo.
Midfielders: NP Pradeep, P Renedy Singh, Syed Rahim Nabi, Steven Dias, Anthony Pereira, Climax Lawrence.
Forwards: Sunil Chhetri, Bhaichung Bhutia (C), Sushil Kumar Singh, Abhishek Yadav.