Where the last World Cup began, at a stadium that resembles a nomad’s tent, India will close their group stage in the 2024 Asian Cup on Tuesday. And hope, in the words of head coach Igor Stimac, that a change in venue brings a change in fortunes.
For a team which conceded five goals and scored none in two games at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, that could mean a first goal, the first point, or – since belief is not in short supply in the squad – a win. The last bit at Al Bayt Stadium is the minimum India require to qualify for the round of 16 as one of the four best third-placed teams.
“It would be an amazing achievement,” Stimac said at Monday’s press conference in Doha. It would also mean wins in consecutive Asian Cup finals, the one in 2024 from the toughest group based on average FIFA rankings in the 24-team competition.
Sahal Abdul Samad is fit, and for the first time since reaching Doha Stimac has a full squad. “He hasn’t played for over a month and had only three sessions here,” said a team official, indicating that the attacking midfielder might start on the bench. The official did not want to be named.
Based on the final training session on Monday, the official said, India could try Subhasish Bose and Sandesh Jhingan as central defenders with Rahul Bheke as right-back. Sunil Chhetri could play as No.10 with Manvir Singh as the targetman for wide midfielders Lallianzuala Chhangte and Udanta Singh to aim at. One from Lalengmawia Ralte (Apuiah), Suresh Wangjam and Deepak Tangri could partner Anirudh Thapa in central midfield, the official said.
Chhetri was part of the last four games against Syria, the latest being in the 2019 Inter-continental Cup that ended 1-1. He also played in the teams that beat Syria in the final of the 2007 and 2009 Nehru Cup and scored when the teams met in the league phase of the tournament in 2012.
With a squad vastly different from the one in Doha, Syria came to the Inter-continental Cup ranked 85th in the world. They are 91 now. India were 101 then, 102 now.
Neither team has scored in the 2024 Asian Cup though Syria have let in one goal – which gives them a better chance of progressing should they win on Tuesday – against Australia after the 0-0 draw against Uzbekistan. “Hopefully, we will be able to use one of the chances we create,” said Stimac. Rahul KP’s blast hit the upright in the 0-3 loss to Uzbekistan where Rahul Bheke and Mahesh Naorem also came close. In the 0-2 loss against Australia and against Uzbekistan, Chhetri failed to keep headers from close on target.
A bigger worry for India has been defending in the six-yard box that led to eight goals in the last three matches. “I am not happy with the defensive shape. The marking inside the box too hasn’t been good enough …Our reactions have been late with regard to the second ball,” said the India head coach.
Anwar Ali, the left-footed central defender who can carry the ball, find passing options and is known for his clean tackles, missed all three matches, against Qatar in November and in the Asian Cup, with injury.
Including five who are based in Europe, 16 in Syria’s squad play outside their country. Born in Argentina, midfielders Ezequiel Ham and Ibrahim Hesar are in the Argentine top tier. Forward Pablo Sabbag was born in Barranquilla, Colombia, and is with a club in Peru.
Managed by former Inter Milan boss Hector Cuper, Syria made two changes against Uzbekistan and three against Australia. “A short bench,” said Stimac. It could mean India trying to take the game deep, tiring Syria and then getting Liston Colaco, Mahesh Naorem and Sahal to run at them.
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