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India aims for a giant leap in FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Afghanistan
Football
Photo courtesy: Facebook/Indian Football Team

India aims for a giant leap in FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Afghanistan

| @indiablooms | 21 Mar 2024, 12:54 am

Abha/Saudi Arabia: The Indian senior soccer men’s team will be on the verge of writing a new chapter in the post-independence era of Indian football history when it resumes its FIFA World Cup 2026 and AFC Asian Cup 2027 Preliminary Joint Qualification Round 2 campaign against Afghanistan on March 22.

Three points from the match, to be played at the Damac Stadium here at 00:30 IST (March 21 at 22:00 local time), can take India closer to the never-achieved and far-reaching dream of making the third round of the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers, something that has remained elusive ever since India's first participation in the qualifiers in 1985.

After a disappointing campaign at the AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2023, the Blue Tigers will hope to build on their tally of three points from the World Cup Qualifiers, where they beat Kuwait 1-0 and lost 0-3 to Qatar in the opening two matchdays in November.

After Friday's fixture, India will face Afghanistan again on the fourth matchday at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati on March 26.

Afghanistan lost both their matches so far by big margins to Qatar (1-8) and Kuwait (0-4).

India will be gunning for all six points from the March fixtures; however, India's head coach, Igor Stimac only has eyes on one match at a time.

The Croatian stated, “Each game is important from the aspect of self-confidence and rankings. But our priority and final goal is to qualify for Round 3.

"There are various options to get there and obviously, nothing will be decided in the next two games. The matches in June against Kuwait and Qatar will tell us everything.”

This will be the fourth time in five years that India will face Afghanistan in an official match.

The two meetings in the World Cup Qualifiers in 2019 and 2021 ended 1-1 each, while India ran out 2-1 winners in the Asian Cup Qualifiers in 2022 in Kolkata, thanks to Sahal Abdul Samad's added-time strike.

The Blue Tigers arrived in Abha on March 15 and have had five full training sessions ahead of the match, acclimatizing to the conditions of the mountain city, which is 2,470 metres above sea level.

"We have been training normally as usual. We came here earlier so the boys could adapt to the different climate in Abha, and things look okay at the moment," said Stimac.

Stimac's counterpart and Afghanistan head coach Ashley Westwood knows Indian football all too well, having coached Bengaluru FC, ATK, and RoundGlass Punjab FC.

He took charge of the Afghanistan national team in November 2023, right before the World Cup qualifiers kicked off.

"Ashley knows most of our boys quite well and has been preparing his team for us since the Asian Cup," said Stimac.

"A few months ago, they had a camp in Abha to work on their game plan and played a friendly with a local team here. But we are sure they will be a much better side than what we have seen in their opening games," he added.

India's skipper Sunil Chhetri, who won two I-League titles and a Federation Cup playing under Westwood at Bengaluru FC, shared his thoughts on the Afghanistan side.

"They will play like a unit; they will be aggressive; they will know exactly what they have to do because that's how Ashley Westwood is. But I think it's more about us. We are here right in the corner of Saudi Arabia and we really have to bounce back after what happened in the Asian Cup. It's not going to be easy. We have to turn up," said Chhetri.

The match will be broadcast on DD Sports and streamed on FanCode.

(With UNI inputs)

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