Struggling to find consistency in a winless campaign so far, India needs nothing less than a win in their crunch Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying round match against Afghanistan to be played in freezing temperatures in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on Thursday.
India began the second round of the qualifiers with a narrow 1-2 defeat to higher-ranked Oman before a memorable goal-less draw against Asian champion Qatar in Doha in September.
The good show in the first two matches raised hopes of a possible third round berth but a 1-1 draw against eastern neighbour Bangladesh in Kolkata on October 15 came as a dampener.
Had it not been for Adil Khan’s last-gasp header in the 88th minute, Igor Stimac’s side would have utterly disappointed the capacity crowd at the Salt Lake Stadium.
The team is currently placed fourth in the Group E table 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.
Afghanistan, 149th in FIFA rankings against India’s 106, is placed third in the group with one win and two losses. Stimac understands his team cannot afford to slip at any cost.
“It will not come to us, rather we need to go and snatch it. It’s always about us and our performance to achieve something,” the Croatian said.
The war-ravaged Afghanistan chose Dushanbe as its home venue and the match will be played on artificial turf amid freezing temperatures. This has added to the woes of Stimac, whose players are not used to these playing conditions.
“It’s very cold and mercury level drops to closer to sub-zero,” Stimac said.
“Moreover, the match is scheduled on an artificial turf which our players are not used to. Afghanistan have chosen the venue to make others’ life difficult and we have an uphill task in front of us to overcome it,” he added.
Captain Sunil Chhetri said the players will have to convert the chances they get, something that they couldn’t do against Bangladesh. “We are creating chances. But that’s not enough. We have to try our best to convert them and try to be a tougher unit while defending,” Chhetri said.
India also suffered a jolt after central defender Anas Edathodika had to return home from Dubai, where the team had a stopover on way to Dushanbe, due to the death of his mother.
Anas was a long-time partner of the imposing Sandesh Jhingan, who is currently recovering from an injury. The team is also without key mid-fielder Rowllin Borges, who is also nursing an injury.
Historically, India enjoys a good record against Afghanistan. The two teams have faced each other eight times out of which India have emerged victorious on six occasions. They have drawn once and lost on one occasion.
But the last time the two sides played against each other, Afghanistan had won 2-0 in the 2013 SAFF Championship final. Afghanistan will come into this match 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 Indian players as he has played in the country for a long time, starting 2011. He played in the inaugural Indian Super League in 2014 for FC Goa and has joined I-League side Gokulam Kerala FC for this season. Amiri has 48 international appearances to his credit.
Captain Farshad Noor graduated from Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven’s youth system though he never played for the senior team in the two seasons he was there from 2013. Noor is currently plying his trade with Cypriot’s first division club Nea Salamis. The 25-year-old midfielder has scored Afghanistan’s only goal in the World Cup qualifiers so far, against Bangladesh.
The Indian Squad: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh, Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem, Pritam Kotal, Nishu Kumar, Rahul Bheke, Narender, Adil Khan, Sarthak Golui, Subhasish Bose, Mandar Rao Dessai, Udanta Singh, Jackichand Singh, Seiminlen Doungel, Raynier Fernandes, Vinit Rai, Sahal Abdul Samad, Pronay Halder, Anirudh Thapa, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Brandon Fernandes, Ashique Kuruniyan, Sunil Chhetri, Manvir Singh, Farukh Choudhary.
The match from Dushanbe, Tajikistan, will be broadcast LIVE from 7:00 pm Star Sports 1, Star Sports 1 HD, Star Sports 2, Star Sports 2 HD, Star Sports 1 Hindi, Star Sports 1 Hindi HD, Star Sports 1 Tamil, Star Sports 1 Kannada, Star Sports 1 Telugu, Star Sports 1 Bangla.
The match at will also be streamed LIVE on Hotstar and JioTV.