Injured Bhutia unlikely to face Aussies

DOHA - Baichung Bhutia, India's skipper and their most experienced and influential player, will almost certainly miss their opening Asian Cup match against Australia, coach Bobby Houghton said on Saturday.

The 34-year-old striker had hoped to bring the curtain down on his illustrious career at Asia's top international tournament but his recurring calf muscle injury looks like denying him the chance.

"He has not recovered from his injury, and has not played for a year, so he won't be match fit. But if we could get 30 minutes out of him, or 45 minutes... that's what he means to us," Houghton said about the player capped 102 times for India.

"He might never be match-fit again, but we are trying everything we can. Just to have him in the dressing room, having his influence, it means that much to us.

"We are generally upbeat, its the first time for nearly 30 years that India has qualified for the Asian Cup, but we are in a tough group with three of the top five teams in Asia - Australia, South Korea and Bahrain."

Bhutia, one of the few Indian players to have overseas experience after playing for Bury in England between 1999 and 2002, is also a doubt for India's other two Group C matches and Houghton admitted his men face a formidable task in qualifying from the group stage.

Asked how he was approaching the opening match against Australia, Houghton replied: "With trepidation I suppose. They have got five or six boys who have played the last seven or eight years in the Premier League in England.

"If you add up the number of games that Mark Schwarzer, Lucas Neill, Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell, Brett Emerton have played, you are talking about over 1,000 games in the Premiership I'd imagine. They are very fine players.

"We have great respect for them."

India meet Australia at the Al Saad Stadium on Monday, followed by South Korea v Bahrain.