The Indian football team will look to end their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign on a high against Afghanistan in Doha and secure third spot in Group E that will take them directly to the third round of 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.
India, who occupy third place in the table, are too far behind the top-two placed Qatar and Oman and hence will have to aim for the next best outcome from the qualifiers which is direct qualification for the next edition of the continental showpiece.
The Blue Tigers returned to winning ways after an 11-match winless run against Bangladesh last week and need just a point against Afghanistan to maintain their position in the Group E standings.
Group E World Cup qualifiers
A defeat however could leave India needing to go through a playoff round to reach the third stage of Asian Cup qualifiers.
India though would be boosted by the 2-0 success over Bangladesh where captain Sunil Chhetri ended his four-match goalless streak. India, who rely heavily on Chhetri for goals, will feel confident given their captain has rediscovered his scoring touch.
The truth is, as it long has been, India have struggled to find an alternate source of goals and Afghanistan could use that to their advantage. The captain himself believes the goals will come for his teammates who need to show a bit more composure on the ball.
“Against Bangladesh, we were hurried at times in the final third and we will surely learn with more matches. For example, Manvir was a bit upset after missing one chance. I told him to relax and keep his head up, and that we all will miss chances,” Chhetri told reporters last week.
“Our next step from here is to be braver with the ball. We understand defending, communicating and taking care of ourselves. Everyone in the team is physically really fit and we are a very young side with many new boys. The head coach encourages us to keep the ball and the way forward is to keep the ball more and look to increase the number of passes and organized attacks,” he added.
India will have to be at their best against an organised Afghanistan side who have conceded eight goals in their last eight matches. Anoush Dastgir’s team have tightened up at the back after heavy defeats against Qatar and Oman in the opening matches of the qualifiers.
The defensive stability has also not come at any significant cost of attacking returns with Afghanistan scoring in five out of their last seven matches. Their only blanks came against Qatar and Oman.
With a clear objective to win the match in order to leapfrog India, Afghanistan who held India to a 1-1 draw in the reverse fixture, are dangerous opponents.
Igor Stimac will have a few selection headaches after the last match against Bangladesh. The defence that was very solid may pick itself but the Croatian may have some thinking to do while picking his players upfront.
Ashique Kuruniyan provided an assist for Chhetri’s opener against Bangladesh and could get the nod over Bipin Singh after an impressive show from the bench. Mohammed Yasir, another substitute who made a positive impact against Bangladesh, could come into the starting XI in place of Udanta Singh.
Manvir Singh didn’t have a particularly good outing in the last game but his goal threat could see him keep his place. Midfielders Suresh Singh Wangjam, Glan Martin and Brandon Fernandes all had a good game against Bangladesh are likely to be retained.
India will have familiar faces to tackle with Afghanistan relying on Zohib Islam Amiri and Masih Saighani, both players who have featured in Indian leagues in the past. Netherlands born-Farshad Noor will also be a big threat to the Indians.
Amredin Sharifi who has two goals in the last three matches and Omid Popalzay will start upfront for the on-paper visitors. Jabar Sharza and Norlla Amiri, who ply their trade in Europe, could complete the line-up.
Head to head
Historically, India have always had an upper hand over Afghanistan but it’s been a much more level-playing field in recent years. In their last three meetings, India and Afghanistan have won a game apiece while the other game (which was their previous meeting in the World Cup qualifiers) ended as a draw.
Overall, India have won six out of the nine games against Afghanistan and have conceded just three goals in these nine matches. All those three goals have come in the last five meetings.
A 1-1 draw hurt India’s chances of making any headway into the top two of this group.
With PTI inputs