September 5: Oman (Home); September 10: Qatar (Away).
In a span of five days, India will face two West Asian football giants in the 2022 World Cup qualifers. But given that India’s hopes of making the cut for the World Cup are minimal, the country’s real challenge will be to finish above the other two teams in the group – Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Maximum points against them will keep India make India’s task of qualifying for the 2023 Asian Cup that much more easier. As per the rules, eight group winners and four best runners-up will progress to the final round of World Cup qualifiers. They will also directly qualify for the continental championship, which will be held in China. The next best 24 teams will have to go through another tedious round of qualifiers for the remaining 12 slots in the 24-team Asian Cup.
The opening two fixtures, meanwhile, will show how genuine India’s claims are of being one of ‘rapidly-improving Asian sides’. As was the case four years ago, India will open their joint qualifying campaign against Oman at home. Back in 2015, India gave their higher-ranked opponents a run for their money and almost stole a point with a late equalising goal that was controversially ruled out for off-side. After that promising start, India’s wheels came off and the team lost seven out of the eight matches and finishing at the bottom of the five-team group.
The national team’s fortunes have changed, largely for good, since then; at least in terms of world rankings. Just how much have they improved on field will be known over the next 12 months. New coach Igor Stimac’s side can be expected to make it to the Asian event. While Qatar, ranked 55, and 86th-placed Oman, are in a different league; India can be expected to get the better of Afghanistan (149) and Bangladesh (183).
Although Afghanistan have improved considerably in the last few years, and have proved to be a tricky opponent for India at times, India will hope to get maximum points from the two matches against them as well as Bangladesh. It also remains to be seen if India will travel to Afghanistan for the away match, scheduled for November 14. Barring a friendly against Palestine, which was held in Kabul last year, Afghanistan have played their ‘home’ matches in other countries owing to the security issues.
India’s head-to-head record against the other two teams, Oman and Qatar, is abysmal. And even though the team held Oman to a goalless draw in a friendly last December, the result cannot be taken on face value as both teams were using it as a warm-up for the Asian Cup.
Stimac refused to take any team lightly, even the teams ranked considerably lower than India. “It will be an enormous challenge for our young team. We have been drawn into a very tough group,” Stimac said.
The beginning of Stimac’s tenure as the chief coach has been mixed. Under the Croat, India have played five matches won one (vs Thailand), drawn one (vs Syria) and lost three (vs Curacao, Tajikistan and North Korea). In all those matches, however, Stimac was trying out different team combinations to identify his best 11.
Against Syria in the Intercontinental Cup on Tuesday, India produced one of their better performances of recent times – especially in the midfield – to hold their higher-ranked opponent to a 1-1 draw. But with a month-and-a-half remaining for the qualifiers to begin, Stimac will be fretting over the availability of his defenders.
Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika – the preferred central defensive duo – are not completely match fit. While Jhingan is nursing an injury, Edathodika is returning from a premature retirement and will take time to gain full fitness, according to Stimac. Throughout the Intercontinental Cup, the coach was forced to field a makeshift defence, which resulted in India suffering embarrassing defeats to Tajikistan and North Korea, both placed lower them in world rankings.
Stimac has little more than a month to plug this hole. Else his team’s qualification hopes for the continental championship, let alone the World Cup, will take a massive hit.
Two Koreas in same group
Reuters: South Korea and North Korea will face off qualifying tournament for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The two Koreas – who met in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup in Germany – have been drawn in Group H alongside Lebanon, Turkmenistan and Sri Lanka. Iran, who have qualified for each of the last two World Cups and at five in total, face neighbours Iraq in Group C alongside Bahrain, Hong Kong and Cambodia.