Inconsistent India meets Afghanistan

Stimac’s men seek first victory in World Cup qualifying round.
Head coach Igor Stimac prepares his team for the World Cup qualifier against Afghanistan
Head coach Igor Stimac prepares his team for the World Cup qualifier against Afghanistan

Chennai

Struggling to find consistency in a winless campaign so far, the Indian football team needs nothing less than a win in its crunch World Cup qualifying round match against Afghanistan here on Thursday.

India began the second round of the qualifiers with a narrow 1-2 defeat against higher-ranked Oman. It then played out a memorable goalless draw against Asian champion Qatar in Doha in September. The good show in the first two games raised hopes of a possible third round berth, but a 1-1 draw against Bangladesh in Kolkata in October came as a dampener.

Had it not been for Adil Khan’s last-gasp header, Igor Stimac’s side would have utterly disappointed the capacity crowd at the Salt Lake Stadium that day. The team is now placed fourth in Group E with two points from three matches. With the runner-up in the five-team group not even assured of a third round slot, India cannot afford to lose against Afghanistan.

The home side, which is 149th in the FIFA rankings as opposed to India’s 106, is third in the group with one win and two losses. Head coach Stimac admits his side can’t slip up at any cost in the current situation it is in. “The win will not come to us, rather we need to go and snatch it. It’s always about us and our performance to achieve something,” said the Croatian.

The war-ravaged Afghanistan chose Dushanbe as its home venue and the contest will be played on artificial turf amid freezing temperatures. This has added to the woes of Stimac, whose boys are not used to these playing conditions. India also suffered a jolt after central defender Anas Edathodika returned home due to the death of his mother.

Anas was a long-time partner of Sandesh Jhingan, who is currently recovering from an injury. The Sunil Chhetri-led team is also without key midfielder Rowlin Borges, who is also nursing an injury. Historically, India has enjoyed a good record against Afghanistan. The two teams have faced each other eight times, out of which India has emerged victorious on six occasions.

But the last time the two sides played, Afghanistan had won 2-0 in the 2013 SAFF Championship final. Afghanistan comes into this encounter after beating Bangladesh 1-0. It had lost heavily to Oman (0-3) and Qatar (0-6) in its earlier matches. Its most-capped player, Haroon Amiri, is a known face for the visiting players as he has plied his trade in India for a long time, starting 2011.

He featured in the inaugural Indian Super League (ISL) in 2014 for FC Goa and has joined I-League side Gokulam Kerala FC for the upcoming season. Amiri has 48 international appearances to his credit. Captain Farshad Noor graduated from Dutch giant PSV Eindhoven’s youth system though he never played for the senior team. Noor is currently with Cypriot’s first division club Nea Salamis. The 25-year-old midfielder has scored Afghanistan’s only goal in the WC qualifiers so far, against Bangladesh.

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