After a resolute Indian defensive display was broken down by the Aussies in their opener of the AFC Asian Cup, coach Igor Stimac will need that same tenacity shown in the first half, in addition to a few attacking inputs from his players, as India takes on Uzbekistan in their second Group B encounter. A loss would mean exiting yet another Asian Cup at the group stages, a draw would leave them at the behest of other results and only a win can keep their hopes of moving onto the Round-of-16 alive.
If Australia is a tough team to beat in Asia, Uzbekistan is no different. Ranked 68th in the world, the Uzbeks are age group wizards at the Asian football level, showing their best from the U17-U23 levels and only usually succumb at AFC-level tournaments to the likes of Japan. Their senior national team narrowly lost to Australia in the previous Asian Cup on penalties and many believe that the central Asian giants will occupy one of the eight slots that the continent has for the 2026 World Cup.
India would have found the going tough against the Uzbeks as it is, but their opponents’ opening goalless draw to Syria has put pressure on their backs to get a positive result, with their last group game being against Australia. The only possible silver lining for India is that just like there are missing four crucial players who make the spine of the team, Uzbekistan are missing their star striker in Eldor Shomurodov.
#BlueTigers 🐯take battle stations 🇮🇳against Uzbekistan 🇺🇿
— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) January 17, 2024
In the first half against Australia, India was able to mount a successful defensive block which could pass the ball out to the flanks in order to find a way out of their own half. Against Uzbekistan, that strategy will have to be used in a much more efficient manner.
“We are looking for more attacking-minded players because, after analysing the game against Australia, I felt we had many situations where we could, instead of just kicking the ball forward, we could find three players in front of us on the flanks. I was not happy because there was no intention to do that in the second half,” Stimac said at the pre-match press conference on Wednesday.
Under Stimac India has varied in their style of play. Yes, the Croat has shown how the national team can be a great-looking football team, but has also held back on the reins against better opposition. Against Uzbekistan, he will once again look towards his defence to hold the fort down. Both Sandesh Jhingan and Rahul Bheke had four blocks each in that game and India had a combined 12 – twice as many as the remaining three teams in their group had combined (6).
— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) January 16, 2024
While against Australia, India couldn’t do much but hold on to dear life. Against Uzbekistan though, there aren’t many options but to play the expansive style of football that India had adopted over the past year, with three trophies won at home and a crucial win against Kuwait in the World Cup qualifiers on the road.
“We can expect a high-pressing game from the very first minute. We need to find a way to handle that. But our boys are excited and happy for another opportunity ahead of us,” Stimac said at the pre-match press conference.
It could mean the return of players like left-back Akash Mishra and midfielder Mahesh Naorem – two players who have been India’s lifeblood of the creative forces on the left flank and whose combination play on that side saw some of India’s best-looking goals come during those three home trophy wins.