Fourteen players in the squad with experience of less than 20 internationals as India try not to hoof the ball into the front third. We are not talking of Igor Stimac’s team—which, hit by injuries and unavailability of defenders, plays Afghanistan in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on Thursday—but the one Wim Koevermans took to the final of the 2013 SAFF Championship.
That night against Afghanistan in Kathmandu, India started without Sunil Chhetri—Koevermans opting for Robin Singh as the targetman—and lost 0-2 through goals from Mustafa Azadzoy and Sanjar Ahmadi. Afghanistan were 139th on the Fifa rankings and India 145. “As long as Afghanistan are in south Asia, India’s rule of football is over,” coach Yousef Kargar had said. When the teams met in the SAFF Championship final in January 2016, India were ranked 166th and Afghanistan 15 places above. India, egged by over 40,000 at Thiruvananthapuram, came back to win 2-1; goals from Jeje Lalpekhlua and Chhetri cancelling Zubayr Amiri’s 70th minute strike. They haven’t met since.
For the first time since 2011, India will be ranked higher than Afghanistan—106 to 149—when the teams meet in this group E match of the 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers. India lost 1-2 to Oman, held Asian champions Qatar 0-0 in Doha and drew 1-1 against Bangladesh. With two points, they are fourth in the five-team group. On three points from three games, Afghanistan are third.
“The most difficult games are those when people who are following you, write the result before the game starts. We witnessed it against Qatar as well as Bangladesh,” said Stimac in Dushanbe on Wednesday. The cold in Dushanbe and the plastic turf aside—Afghanistan coach Anoush Dastagir said at the press conference that they beat Bangladesh here and held Cambodia, Jordan and Tajikistan—Stimac said this would be a difficult game.
“Afghanistan are a physical side with good composure. They have some players who also have the experience of playing in Europe. They are not in the top division, but playing in Europe always gives you an extra bit of confidence,” said Stimac. Midfielder Farshad Noor is with Nea Salamis in Cyprus and has spent two seasons at PSV Eindhoven.
The absence of Anas Edathodika, who left for home in Kerala early on Wednesday following his mother’s death, further depletes Stimac’s options in central defence which is already missing Sandesh Jhingan due to injury. In eight games under Stimac, India have two clean sheets. Stimac could move right back Rahul Bheke into the heart of the defence with Adil Khan. He could also give Sarthak Golui his debut or Narender his fifth India game.
Rowllin Borges’ injury has earned Pronay Halder a recall and it is possible he will start with Anirudh Thapa in central midfield. Azadzoy and Zubayr Amiri are in the squad for Thursday’s game as is Haroon Amiri who has played for a number of I-League clubs, represented FC Goa in the Indian Super League and is now with Gokulam Kerala FC. From the India team that won in 2016, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Pritam Kotal, Halder, Lallianzuala Chhangte and Chhetri are in Dushanbe.