AFC Asian Cup: India face tough Australia challenge

We will go out and fight, says India coach Igor Stimac ahead of opening match against Socceroos.
Picture caption: India head coach Igor Stimac Credit: AFP
Picture caption: India head coach Igor Stimac Credit: AFP

BENGALURU: Exactly five years and one week ago, India started an Asian Cup campaign in the most spectacular of fashions, smashing four goals past Thailand. On Saturday though, as the Blue Tigers kick off another Asian Cup campaign at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, the focus will be on not getting smashed. For on the opposite side of the pitch will be Australia, one of the best teams in Asia.

When Australia last played in the same stadium, it was in the Round of 16 of the 2022 World Cup and they almost took eventual champions Argentina to extra time, before losing 2-1. That is the kind of quality India are against. Of course, they have lost a number of players since, and a generation is finding their way. But they were still good enough to beat Bangladesh — a team against which India has drawn four times in their last five games — 7-0 in the 2026 World Cup Qualifiers in November. More than half of Australia’s squad play their football in Europe. In short, there is perhaps not a better time for Indian football fans to keep their expectations grounded.

Downplaying expectations was perhaps the dominant theme in India coach Igor Stimac’s pre-match press conference. “I'm not putting any pressure on players. We will go out and fight,” he said. “We will go out and fight. It’s going to be a difficult match for us. We all know the strengths of Australia, and their achievements as well. Their players are coming in from European clubs, where they’ve been playing competitive football week in, and week out. It's not easy. But we are here to embrace all such challenges.”
“We are excited that the kick-off time is close. We have had a nice 12 days here working hard. All the boys are excited and we are looking forward to the game. Hopefully, it turns out to be wonderful for our 17 debutants. It is a place for them to learn,” he added.

But, unlike the last time India played Australia — the 2011 Asian Cup — when fans did not dare to even dream of a miracle, both Stimac and his players will know that on their day, they can dance with the best in Asia. It was under Stimac that India held defending Asian Cup champions Qatar to a goalless draw in 2019. One does not have to go that far back into the past either. In September last year, India held Iraq — a team that has since held Qatar and lost only by a solitary goal to South Korea — to a stalemate in normal time, before losing on penalties. Under Stimac, this team has shown that it can defend doggedly throughout 90 minutes.

Everything will depend on how India’s defence absorbs the relentless pressure that is sure to come their way. “We don’t have to give away set pieces,” said Stimac. “We know the strengths of Australia. They play very pragmatic football. They caused a lot of problems to England (in a friendly in October) and we can expect the storms coming out of them. We need to stay compact and do everything possible to stop crosses from the flanks.”

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The New Indian Express