Despite the failure to win a single game, the recently-concluded Intercontinental Cup gave Indian men’s football team head coach Igor Stimac an opportunity to fine-tune his preparations for the all-important Fifa World Cup 2022 qualifiers in September.
Just before the eve of the draw, Stimac was questioned about what India should be worried about the most in the upcoming competition and the Croatian’s message was clear.
“We respect everyone and that’s what I’m going to teach my team. Not only teams from the top from but also teams from the lower pot. But we don’t fear anyone,” he asserted.
Wednesday’s draw in Kuala Lumpur put India (currently placed 101 in the Fifa Rankings) in a tricky group alongside AFC Asian Cup champions Qatar (55), Gulf champions Oman (86) , Afghanistan (149) and Bangladesh (183). The teams will play a double round-robin format with home and away games.
In 2018, India had finished bottom in the second round of the previous edition of the World Cup qualifiers for Asia where they had played Iran, Turkmenistan, Oman, and Guam.
While the draw is relatively easier on paper this time, the Blue Tigers face a challenging start to their campaign. They will play Oman (home) and Qatar (away) in their opening two games and how they fare against these higher-ranked teams at the start could have a telling impact on the rest of their group games.
India's schedule for 2022 World Cup qualifiers
|September 5, 2019||Oman||home|
|September 10, 2019||Qatar||away|
|October 15, 2019||Bangladesh||home|
|November 14, 2019||Afghanistan||away|
|November 19, 2019||Oman||away|
|March 26, 2020||Qatar||home|
|June 4, 2020||Bangladesh||away|
|June 9, 2020||Afghanistan||home|
Here’s a closer look at each of India’s opponents:
By far, the toughest opponent in the group for the Blue Tigers. Qatar were peerless during their Asian Cup 2019 triumph back in January, going unbeaten the entire tournament and conceding just once – in the final against Japan.
They gave a good account of themselves in their Copa America debut as well where Felix Sanchez’s side gave teams like Paraguay and Colombia a run for their money and had a realistic chance of reaching the quarter-finals. But having already qualified for the Fifa World Cup 2022 as hosts, they might experiment with a relatively weaker side in the qualifiers going by the opponents they have been given.
Another tough opponent but definitely one that India would need to get better of if they have to harbour hopes of reaching the next round. At the Asian Cup, they advanced from the group stage as one of the best third-placed teams, but were knocked out by Iran in the Round of 16.
Earlier in 2018, India had held Oman to a draw in their backyard courtesy of a resilient defensive display. That was a friendly game ahead of the Asian Cup and more of the same would be expected when the two sides meet in September. Like India, they have a new coach in Erwin Koeman who will also probably be figuring out his best squad ahead of the qualifiers.
Ranked 48 places below India in the Fifa rankings, Afghanistan are one of the teams that are still in transition. In 29-year-old Anoush Dastgir, they have one of the youngest coaches who is still learning the ropes as a manager.
The country does not have an affiliated top football league with most of their squad members playing in multiple leagues across Europe and Asia and their inexperience could be easily targeted by their group opponents. The team came close to securing qualification for the Asian Cup but missed out after losing to Vietnam.
Bangladesh are the underdogs in the group who will be eyeing an upset or two. India can be optimistic about their chances against their neighbours but cannot afford to take them lightly.
Jamie Day’s men defeated Laos 1-0 on aggregate in the first round of the qualifiers in June to advance to the second round as one of the best six teams.
India last faced Bangladesh almost five years ago in a friendly and their last World Cup qualifying game was way back in 1985, where India triumphed 2-1 on aggregate.
Bangladesh would be hoping for an improved show after losing seven games and drawing one in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.
India might have not achieved the desired results in their five games under Stimac so far, but the Intercontinental Cup would helped him identify the players he can bank upon and the strategies he can implement.
“You can do your permutations and combinations as per what your knowledge is but I have been to the draws and there all your maths goes out of the window. It’s your luck. But at the end of the day if you’re not good, there’s nothing you can do,” Sunil Chhetri had said.
With Stimac having guided Croatia to the World Cup, India can bank on someone who knows what it takes to reach to the top.