Chandigarh, June 7
On the face of it, it shouldn’t be that hard a task – unless India decide to make their own live difficult.
Competing on home soil for the first time since 2019, the Igor Stimac-coached India will be looking to qualify for the 2023 Asian Cup when the final round of the qualifiers begins tomorrow at Kolkata’s cauldron-like Salt Lake Stadium.
The final round offers 11 spots — six group toppers and five best runners-up — for the 24-team Asian Cup. For the 106th-ranked India, who are placed in Group D alongside Cambodia (world No. 171), Afghanistan (150) and Hong Kong (147), the setting couldn’t be more favourable. Everything has got to be to their liking — a convenient draw, home advantage and the return of the talisman Sunil Chhetri.
The only lingering worry is India’s run of poor performances. Since winning the SAFF Championships in October 2021, India haven’t won a single match and their latest outing was a 0-2 loss to Jordan in a friendly.
However, Stimac doesn’t have an iota of doubt when asked about India’s chances. “I’m never worried about the friendly games. It’s a learning process. It’s more important how we do in these official games,” Stimac said.
“We are favourites and we are not hiding from that fact. I see India in the Asian Cup main tournament, no doubt about it,” he added.
‘Hungry’ Blue Tigers
Despite their favourites tag, Indian will not take any side for granted, Stimac said. “When India were down 180 in rankings, we went to win the games and not lose them. I’d never say we can win against anyone easily. That would be disrespectful. We need to be ready, hungry and fully motivated for these games,” Stimac said.
Winning their opener against Cambodia will help release the pressure off the hosts. Despite the rankings gap, India expect a tough challenge from Cambodia.
“I respect every opposition. I don’t look at rankings. Cambodia didn’t come here to participate, they came with the same desire to win the game,” Stimac said. India’s troubles against a side that sits deep — which is what is expected of Cambodia — are well known. That is why forwards Chhetri, Manvir Singh and Liston Colaco — if deemed fit to play — have to fire early on and build on that to allay any fears of a draw.
The biggest threat for India in the group will probably be familiar foes Afghanistan. They are fast on the counter, physically and mentally resolute, and have players participating in foreign leagues. One can expect it to be a scrappy affair on Saturday — much like their last meeting in the World Cup qualifiers, which ended in a 1-1 draw.
“From our previous experiences we know that Afghanistan is a team of strong, tough guys full of confidence,” Stimac said. “They play good organised football throughout the year.”
Hong Kong, on the other hand, have three Brazilian players — forward Wellingson, midfielder Diego Eli Moreira and defender Tomas Maronesi — who have been naturalised into the team. The last time India faced them was back in 2010 and they lost the friendly 0-1. There will be a lot to unpack for the Indians as they meet Hong Kong on June 14.