Facing an Australian team ranked 25th in the world – one that gave Leo Messi hell at the 2022 World Cup and troubled England with their physically monstrous set piece routines – is a daunting task in itself for India. And if that isn’t enough, the Blue Tigers are without four press-resistant players that constituted a well-built spine of the team for the first time in decades. What could have been a showcase of how far Indian football has come in the last one year is now set to be reduced to an act of mere survival at Ahmed bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan on Saturday as both teams begin their Asian Cup 2023 campaign.
It is remarkable how things have gone against India in the build-up to this tournament. Coach Igor Stimac pleaded for more time with the team but instead got a grand total of 12 days. If India was Japan, 12 days would be no issue but the time it takes Stimac to scrub the poor domestic structure out of his players is where the issue lies.
And if time with the team was withheld, a slew of injuries to major players made matters so much worse. Central defender Anwar Ali – a key defensive player who decided the space between the India defensive line and their offensive line – was lost to a long-term knee injury. Jeakson Singh, a metronome passer who rarely gave the ball away and boosted India’s capabilities when they had possession, is out injured as well. And then Sahal Abdul Samad, a tireless attacking midfielder who put defensive pressure in the final third and combined it with a creative presence against heavy-set defences, was taken with the team and was part of the press conference but is clearly not fit enough to play. Three players that represented the new way that the Indian football team played, all out of the tournament.
𝗜𝘁 𝗱𝗼𝗲𝘀𝗻’𝘁 𝗴𝗲𝘁 𝗯𝗶𝗴𝗴𝗲𝗿 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝗻 𝘁𝗵𝗶𝘀 🔥
India’s Asian Dream 💙
— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) January 4, 2024
“We have lost a good part of our quality with four key players. Sahal is not ready yet for the game, but we are doing everything to bring him back. But, not having Ashique (Kuruniyan), Anwar (Ali) and Jeakson is quite hard for us because we could’ve been a very different side with them on the pitch,” Stimac said at the pre-match press conference.
And then there is the group that India is a part of. If the 2019 Asian Cup was a missed opportunity to make it to the Round of 16, the 2023 Asian Cup is possibly the worst situation India could have found themselves in. An Australian team that are only second to Japan and South Korea in Asia, an Uzbekistan squad that has only lost to Japan across U17 to U23 age group tournaments and is looking to take the next step for their senior team. India’s only realistic hope for points comes against the Syrians, a team that recently drew with Malaysia, a team that had beaten the Indians in the Merdeka Cup at the Bukit Jalil Stadium.
#BlueTigers‘ 🐯 trials at top echelon begins 🇮🇳 with Australia 🇦🇺 battle
Preview Report 👉🏼 https://t.co/3A5E6UQovs
— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) January 12, 2024
But the immediate concern is which version of India turns up against Australia. Does Stimac prefer pragmatism and stay the flow of goals, hoping to keep India in the tournament for a pivotal clash against Uzbekistan? Or does India continue on the path built by him across the three tournaments earlier where the national team started to play an attractive brand of football on the bedrock of improved fitness levels?
Against Australia, there might be a bit of both.
“We have been working on our mindset through meditation. Mindset change was the key element in our approach when I started my work with Indian football. To switch from a defensive mindset to attacking football, it’s not easy. Hopefully, soon things will change in Indian football and give us elements that other countries are using to get as good as it can in football,” said Stimac.
Despite the promise of sticking to their style of play, Stimac said that stopping the Australians and their set pieces and crosses would be where India’s challenge lies. To put it into context, India has the fourth lowest average height across the 24 teams at the Asian Cup. While India’s average height stands at 177.35cm, the Australians are the fifth tallest team in the tournament with an average height of 182.38cm.
“We don’t have to give away set-pieces. We know the strengths of Australia. Graham (Arnold) and myself are the longest-serving managers here at the tournament. He has also coached at the youth setup. They play very pragmatic football, insisting on their strengths. They caused a lot of problems to England and we can expect the storms coming out of them. We need to stay compact and do everything possible to stop the crosses from the flanks,” said Stimac.
𝗚𝗲𝗮𝗿𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝘂𝗽 ⚙️⏳
— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) January 12, 2024
With so many factors going against India, the only silver lining that remains from the Asian Cup is the experience gained. By playing against two perennial quarter finalists at the Asian level, India stands to know where they truly are among Asia pecking order.
There is also the matter of the World Cup qualifiers, where the country is deliciously placed to make it into the third round for the very first time in their history. While the game against Australia and then the tie against Uzbekistan might expose the poor domestic structure of Indian football, these players stand the chance to gain valuable practice for their home and away games against Afghanistan and a crucial home clash against Kuwait.
Goalkeepers: Amrinder Singh, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Vishal Kaith.
Defenders: Akash Mishra, Lalchungnunga, Mehtab Singh, Nikhil Poojary, Pritam Kotal, Rahul Bheke, Sandesh Jhingan, Subhasish Bose.
Midfielders: Anirudh Thapa, Brandon Fernandes, Deepak Tangri, Lalengmawia Ralte, Liston Colaco, Naorem Mahesh Singh, Sahal Abdul Samad, Suresh Singh Wangjam, Udanta Singh.
Forwards: Ishan Pandita, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Manvir Singh, Rahul Kannoly Praveen, Sunil Chhetri, Vikram Partap Singh.
India’s Group B fixtures at the AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2023
January 13, 2024: Australia vs India (17:00 IST, Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan)
January 18, 2024: India vs Uzbekistan (20:00 IST, Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan)
January 23, 2024: Syria vs India (17:00 IST, Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor)