With Asian Cup berth on the line, India take on Hong Kong


After stitching together two wins in five days, India will take on Group D leaders Hong Kong in the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers at the Salt Lake City Stadium in Kolkata on Tuesday. A win or a draw takes the national team into the 2023 AFC Asian Cup and a loss would mean that results in other groups would have to go their way for a way back into Asia’s premier continental tournament.

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There has been a need to compartmentalise what is going on in Indian football on the field and outside of it. Currently being run by a Committee of Administrators, the sport has not enjoyed the best of times in the country. There lies uncertainty over whether a team that has worked hard for over 180 minutes to put together two wins will even be given the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their labour at the Asian stage. And yet, despite the looming threat of FIFA and AFC laws leading to a country ban, the national team has silently gone about and done their bit.

A good start to the campaign was crucial. Sunil Chhetri, returning from injury, pumped two goals past Cambodia for a 2-0 win and give the start the team needed. Then came Afghanistan, a team that has often elicited the worst of this current iteration of the national team. Even though India lies significantly ahead in rankings, they’ve struggled against Afghanistan in the past. Coach Igor Stimac has often cited Afghanistan’s overseas players policy as the reason for the gap being significantly lower than what the rankings suggest.

But on Saturday his team fought from the first minute against a physically challenging Afghan team. For 86 minutes, nothing could separate both teams. Then Chhetri did what he does – curling in a freekick from right outside the box into Afghanistan’s net. Two minutes later, India conceded from a corner. But then in extra time, Sahal Abdul Samad came up with a winner to help India make it two wins in two games.

A win or a draw now brings the surety of making back-to-back Asian Cups – something that has not been done by the Indian team ever.

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“There is a big prize at the end which is qualification to the Asian Cup. Even though we have done good in the last two games, we have not achieved anything yet. What we have learnt is to keep everything aside. We just have to focus on the next game, and end the tournament on a positive note,” Chhetri said in the pre-match press conference.

India’s opponents for Tuesday Hong Kong, on the other hand, have also beaten both Cambodia and Afghanistan while doing so with a marginally higher goal difference.

“We need to complement Hong Kong for what they’ve shown in their first two games and deservedly they’re leading the group at the moment because they have a better goal difference. They are a well-organised, disciplined side with enough quality to defend as well as attack, but we’ve studied their strengths and weaknesses, and we know what we need to do to win this game,” Stimac said at the pre-match press conference.

One aspect of the match in favour of Stimac is the resources at hand. While players like Liston Colaco and Ashique Kuruniyan have delivered in these two games, regular national team players like right-back Pritam Kotal, left-back Subhashish Bose and midfielder Anirudh Thapa have yet to be tested out.

“We will train and then decide who is to be rested and who will start against Hong Kong. But whom do you pick and who do you leave out? This is my main worry, and I love this worry. I love this kind of headache you know – it’s a pleasant one, a wonderful one.”

Beating Hong Kong would also give Stimac some breathing room. His stint as the Indian national team coach has seen some middling performances by the national team – especially in the World Cup qualifiers against Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Even though there have been moments like India earning a draw against the reigning Asian Champions Qatar, Stimac’s contract is set to end soon and the results of these Asian Cup qualifiers could hold significance in deciding whether the Croatian manager continues to helm the national team or not.

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