India will sorely miss their talismanic skipper Sunil Chhetri as they return to action after two months against higher-ranked Iraq in the four-team King’s Cup, on Thursday. Chhetri, who played a key role in India’s title triumph in the Intercontinental Cup and SAFF Championship, has taken a break to spend time with his wife following the birth of their son. The Igor Stimac-coached side returns to action on the back of winning a hat-trick of titles that also include the Tri-Nation tournament in Imphal in March.
Ranked 29 places above India in the FIFA rankings, Iraq, who recently won the Arabian Gulf Cup, will start as firm favourites in the four-nation tournament where the winners of the two round robin matches play the final.
In the other match, hosts Thailand will take on Lebanon later in the day. The two losing teams will fight for the bronze medal before Sunday’s final.
That India are yet to defeat Iraq in six matches (four losses, two draws) make this all the more difficult for the Stimac-coached side.
The last time India took on Iraq, the Blue Tigers lost 0-2 in a Sharjah friendly before the 2011 Asian Cup.
“I hope that we’re going to give everything on the pitch to do something good against a strong side like Iraq, who are Arabian Gulf Cup champions,” said Stimac in the pre-match media interaction.
“After beating Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, they are one of the clear favourites in the upcoming Asian Cup. So it’s going to be very difficult for us, but I hope our boys will enjoy the game,” he added.
Iraq are coached by Jesus Casas, junior to Stimac by six years and was a youth team player for Spanish side Cádiz CF, where the Croatian played for two seasons between 1992 and 1994.
“I’m very happy to be seated here with an old friend from my playing days in Spain,” Stimac said.
Casas also showed respect for India.
“India are not easy. We have watched their matches. They are a very good team, very organised. They know a lot of ways to attack. They can play short ball and long ball. But our target is to win this tournament and prepare for the World Cup qualifiers,” Casas said.
India will be without their star performer Chhetri, who has 92 international goals to his credit, but the Blue Tigers will certainly be no pushovers against one of the traditional powerhouses of Asian football.
There is hardly a better example of a developed player over the last four years than Lallianzuala Chhangte.
The winger, who made only his third start for India against Curaçao in the 2019 King’s Cup semi-final, is now at the peak of his national team career, scoring in the final of both the Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championship this year. He was also named the 2022-23 AIFF Player of the Year.
“The team atmosphere right now is very well. We just had beautiful success over the last few months, and I hope we continue that momentum,” Chhangte said.
“But I think this will be the real test because we are playing away from home and playing against one of the best countries in Asia.” Hosts Thailand and Lebanon, on the other hand, should make India confident.
Against the hosts, India had secured a famous 4-1 win in Abu Dhabi during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, and a 1-0 win at the 2019 King’s Cup.
Lebanon are also familiar opponents, having faced India three times in a span of a month during the Intercontinental Cup and SAFF Championship.
India secured a victory in one of those ties, drew twice, and clinched a win in the SAFF Championship semi-final through penalty shootout.
The King’s Cup will mark India’s fourth appearance in the tournament and first time after 2019 when the Blue Tigers reached the semi-finals but were defeated by Curacao.
They bounced back with a 1-0 victory over hosts Thailand to return with a bronze medal.
India’s initial foray into the King’s Cup was in 1977, where they claimed bronze by defeating formidable opponents such as South Korea, Singapore, and Indonesia.
In 1981, India was unable to advance past the group stage.
After this tournament, a few members of the Stimac-coached squad will head to the Hangzhou Asian Games.
Indian Squad: Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Gurmeet Singh.
Defenders: Asish Rai, Nikhil Poojary, Sandesh Jhingan, Anwar Ali, Mehtab Singh, Lalchungnunga, Akash Mishra.
Midfielders: Jeakson Singh Thounaojam, Suresh Singh Wangjam, Brandon Fernandes, Sahal Abdul Samad, Anirudh Thapa, Rohit Kumar, Ashique Kuruniyan, Naorem Mahesh Singh, Lallianzuala Chhangte.
Forwards: Manvir Singh, Rahim Ali, Rahul KP.
Head coach: Igor Stimac.
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