NEW DELHI: STILL without a win from their opening three Group E matches, the Indian national football team needs nothing short of three points when they meet Afghanistan on Thursday if they are to keep alive their chances of reaching the third round of the World Cup qualifiers.
India have so far lost 1-2 to a higher-ranked Oman before securing a memorable goal-less draw against
Asian champions Qatar at their den back in September. But inconsistency put paid to hopes of a first win as they were held to a disappointing 1-1 draw against neighbours Bangladesh in Kolkata.
The Blue Tigers are now in fourth spot with two points from three matches. Only the four best runners-up teams will join the group toppers in Round 3. The job at hand has been complicated further after central defender Anas Edathodika had to return home from Dubai, where the team had a stopover on the way to Dushanbe, due to the death of his mother. This means both India’s first choice centre-backs have been sidelined prior to the crunch clash with Sandesh Jhingan set to be out for an extended period following surgery.
“India’s defence needs work. Most people keep harping on the fact that without Sunil Chhetri, the team becomes severely weakened. I will argue that without a leader at the back like Sandesh, it is equally tough for the team to get a positive result. With stop-gap options like Adil (Khan) and Subhasish (Bose), it can be difficult to obtain a clean sheet. It is not their fault as they are not used to playing out of position in such crunch matches,” former India defender Anwar Ali said.
The freezing temperature and artificial turf at the venue will add to Igor Stimac’s woes along with the fact that the squad hardly got time to practice as a group with players of Chennaiyin FC and Bengaluru FC joining up with the rest of the team on Monday. The onus will again be on the talismanic Chhetri as he will be tasked with providing the goals.
“Bangladesh was a one-off match where our strikers didn’t do well. Otherwise, they have been in good form and should not be a problem against Afghanistan. But conditions in Dushanbe will be a matter of worry. Our players haven’t played on artificial surface for long and without a camp, it will be difficult for them to adapt to that. In addition, they will have to deal with the cold weather,” former India striker IM Vijayan said.
India, ranked 106, have always enjoyed playing against the 149th ranked Afghans, winning on six occasions out of eight. However, that solitary loss came when the two sides met last during the 2013 SAFF Championship final.
With the national football team garnering quite a following in recent years, it will be interesting to see whether the team can actually walk the talk when it truly matters.