Indian football team under Igor Stimac has recorded just one victory in 13 matches and set an unwanted record of going eleven games without a win when they went down 1-0 to Asian champions Qatar on Thursday.
It’s a record that has put the Croatian coach under a considerable amount of pressure with India’s berth in the third round of the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers being far from guaranteed.
A mitigating factor for Stiamc is that his reign has been severely disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic and since his appointment, India have mostly played superior opponents. Even though the Fifa ranking may not have always reflected it, India have been underdogs in ten out of these thirteen matches.
Group E table as it stands
The Blue Tigers have drawn three out of these ten games and have lost the remaining seven. Not a great return, but a respectable one bar the recent drubbing against UAE.
The games that have done damage to Stimac’s reputation have been the ones where India have started as favourites. They have been few and far between but the Blue Tigers won just one of those three games with the win coming against Thailand in the King’s Cup in 2019. Crucially, in the two World Cup qualifiers against Bangladesh and Afghanistan, India could only manage a draw and on both occasions needed late goals to salvage the points.
Those results have left India with a battle on its hands to earn a direct entry into the third round of the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.
As India face Bangladesh on the back of a fairly gritty performance against Qatar, the onus will be on Stimac’s men to transform from a determined defensive outfit to a creative attacking unit that can break down a resolute Bangladesh side and also guard against their counter-attacks.
Bangladesh had provided a glimpse of their abilities in the 1-1 draw in Kolkata in 2019 and proved that they are capable of repeating that kind of display in another 1-1 draw with Afghanistan on Thursday. Defending in numbers, Bangladesh had just 27% of possession but still managed to fire four shots on target in the game that eventually culminated in an 84th-minute equaliser. Despite facing 17 shots during the match, Jamie Day’s team conceded just once.
Captain Jamal Bhuyan, who had played for Mohammedan Sporting in the I-League, feels it’s “going to be an intense match” when the two teams take the field.
“It will be intense – with a lot of battles. It’s a beautiful match to be a part of. Last time in Kolkata, we were disappointed not to get the 3 points as India scored very late in the game. We have that hunger in us, and we know we can do some damage,” he said.
“The confidence in our team is good at the moment. We had our chance of winning against Afghanistan. We take that confidence with us into the India game,” Jamal added
Stimac said Bangladesh are good at irritating their opponents with their defensive discipline and his team would need to approach the game with a different mentality to get a positive result from the match.
“We are going to try to show some composure different from that of Qatar or Oman match. It’s up to us whether we can handle the match better in regards to ball possession, ball movement, speed and accuracy of passing and the eventual execution,” the coach said.
India haven’t enjoyed the favourites tag too often under Stimac but going forward they may have to find ways to beat teams that defend in numbers and carry a threat on transitions in order to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup. In that aspect, the Bangladesh match will tell us a lot about where Indian football team stands in the race for the Asian Cup qualification.
Midfielder Sohel Rana is out with a fractured hand for Jamie Day’s side, having come off injured in the match against Afghanistan. Rana’s absence will be a blow for Bangladesh as he is among the few experienced figures in the squad that is already without a few big-name players in goalkeeper Ashraful Rana, defenders Rayhan Hasan and Biswanath Ghosh and forwards Saad Uddin, Mohammed Jibon and Mohammed Ibrahim.
Bangladesh are a relatively young and inexperienced side led by captain Jamal Bhuyan who made his 50th appearance in the last match, making him the most experienced player in their ranks. Defenders Rahmat Mia and Topu Barman, who have 53 matches among them, will be key to their hopes at the heart of that Bangladesh backline. Barman is a threat at the other end as well and scored the team’s equaliser against Afghanistan.
Their attacking threat mainly comes from youngsters Mahbabur Rahman Sufil who has four goals to his name for the national team and midfielder Biplu Ahmed who has scored thrice in his career so far
Anirudh Thapa is expected to be back in the fold for India after he was isolating for the last four days. Rahul Bheke will be suspended and Rowllin Borges is out with an injury. Chinglensana Singh may return to bolster Stimac’s defensive options.
After starting with a back three in the last match, India is likely to switch to a back four to provide greater attacking threat. Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan would retain their places but it would be interesting to see who the Croatian picks for the other two spots. Ashique Kuruniyan may be needed higher up the pitch but Stimac may keep him in a full-back role if he picks an ultra-attacking side.
Captain Sunil Chhetri who only played 45 minutes against Qatar should start alongside Manvir Singh. Bipin Singh, who has started in the last two matches, may have a fight on his hands to keep his place.
Head to head
India and Bangladesh have faced each other 29 times with India winning 15 of those matches. 12 have ended in draws while Bangladesh have two wins to their name. In World Cup qualifiers though, the two sides have met just thrice with India winning on two occasions and the other meeting (which was the last one between the two sides) ending in a draw.
Bangladesh’s wins against India have come in the South Asian Games with their previous one coming way back in 1999. The last three meetings between the teams have all ended in draws. India’s last win over Bangladesh was at the 2009 SAFF Championships.
With PTI inputs
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