One the eve of their World Cup qualifier clash against Bangladesh, a tricky question was thrown at India football team coach Igor Stimac at the pre-match press conference: “India head into the match as favourites but that is not something that often happens. How do you deal with such a situation?”
Citing an example of their previous goalless draw against Qatar, the Indian football team coach immediately downplayed the advantage of the favourites tag against their less-fancied opponents, ranked 83 places below them in the Fifa rankings.
“Being favourite in a game is nothing. We proved that in Qatar. It’s eleven players against eleven players. There are favourites and underdogs but that doesn’t mean the favourite will win. It’s about teamwork, it is about team building,” said Stimac.
Perhaps, we would need to dive a little deeper into the question. How does India actually approach such a game? One where they need to win at all costs despite being crippled by injury woes but also where a bad result could mean the end of the road for them.
It was just last month that Blue Tigers achieved one of the biggest results in Indian football, arguably in a decade - snatching a point from Asian champions Qatar back in their own den. Though just a draw, it gave India a reason to dream big.
Heading into Wednesday, Bangladesh would hope to replicate the same, knowing a similar result will provide major fillip in reviving the scenario of football in the country whose league structure is in shambles.
Although India managed to eke out just a point from their first two matches of the qualifying campaign, Stimac’s side has proven that they can take the fight against higher-ranked opposition.
Against Oman in the opener, they went full throttle at home before sloppy defending at the death cost them three deserved points.
Away to Qatar, they survived waves of attack by putting their bodies on the line and thwarted danger by staying organised.
There have been flashes of brilliance going forward, and against the lowest-ranked team in their group, there will be the opportunity to go all-out on attack.
However, Bangladesh have the ability to cause them trouble. They are coming off a 0-2 loss to Qatar at home and despite having no realistic chance of claiming a result against Felix Sanchez’s side, who were ranked 125 places above them in the Fifa rankings, they gave a good account of themselves.
India have been implementing a philosophy of keeping the ball more in recent times. In contrast, Bangladesh under coach Jamie Day are a counter-attacking side who are most threatening on the wings with Biplu Ahmed, Sohel Rana and Saad Uddin in their ranks. They also catch opposition defenses off-guard with long throws into the penalty box and have proved to be a handful from corners.
While Stimac won’t underestimate the Asian neighbours, he promised that India won’t be holding back either.
“We know that we have somehow woken up everyone with our recent performance. We have shown everyone we can play organised and disciplined football and on our day, we can play against anyone,” Stimac said at the press conference.
Stimac added: “Playing Bangladesh will be different as in our first two games where we were not favourites. No one counted on us to make positive results and now we are working is to release the pressure from our team. Tomorrow, what we need to prove is that we are capable of keeping ball-possesion, dominating the game and continuously attacking while making sure we are organised in defense.”
A major positive for the visitors though has been a current form. So far this year, they have played seven games, winning four and losing two. In their current squad, 14 players are 23 years old or younger. Day conceded a wide gap between the two sides would be a factor in Kolkata but that beating India is very much achievable.
“I am surely they are going to attack a lot more than they did against Qatar, so defensively we have to make sure that we don’t concede goals,” said Day, who has been in charge of the side since May 2018.
The Bangladesh coach further added: “The ranking does affect, they are up there because they have won games for a reason. We have worked hard recently but we are also making efforts to improve our ranking because going forward it will give us an advantage. The way we played against Qatar, if we play in a similar way, we have a good chance to beat them. The aim is to get some point from this game.”
It’s a fight for survival with both sides languishing at the bottom of Group E.
After missing the previous clash due to illness, captain Sunil Chhetri comes back into the side and is set to be supported by wingers Ashique Kuruniyan and Udanta Singh. With defensive midfielder Rowllin Borges missing due to suspension, youngster Vinit Rai may get a look in. Anirudh Thapa, Sahal Abdul Samad and Brandon Fernandes are the other names who could feature in the remaining two midfield spots.
Rahul Bheke is in strong contention to start despite a groin injury while Sandesh Jhighan’s long-term absence may see either teenager Narender Gahlot or Anas Edathodika being slotted alongside Adil Khan in central defense.
Bangladesh will probably line-up in their 4-4-2 system as preferred by coach Day. Defender Bishwanath Ghosh makes a comeback after a suspension and might replace Riyadul Rafi at right-back. Striker Nabib Jibon will lead the line while Danish-born Jamal Bhuyan will be a threat in midfield, the two being among the experienced members in the team.
India - L-L-D-L-D
Bangladesh - W-D-L-W-L