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Matches against Kuwait, Qatar will tell us everything about India’s qualification to third round: Stimac

The results against Kuwait and Qatar in June will be the real indicator of the Indian football team’s prospects of making a maiden appearance in the third round of the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers, head coach Igor Stimac said on Wednesday.

India will take on lower-ranked Afghanistan in their second-round qualifying match here on Thursday, and a win in the hill town will only brighten its chances of progressing to the third round, something the Blue Tigers have never achieved.

“Each game is important from the aspect of self-confidence and rankings. But our priority and the 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,” Stimac said.

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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 Indians arrived here on March 15 and have had five full training sessions ahead of the match, acclimatising to the conditions in the mountain city, which is 2,470 metres above sea level.

The Indian team in a training session ahead of its Worldn Cup qualifiers against Afghanistan.

The Indian team in a training session ahead of its Worldn Cup qualifiers against Afghanistan.
| Photo Credit:
AIFF

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The Indian team in a training session ahead of its Worldn Cup qualifiers against Afghanistan.
| Photo Credit:
AIFF

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

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 last November, 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 back 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 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.

With three points and one win from two matches, India currently occupies second place in the Group A pecking order.

Reigning Asian champion Qatar leads the Group A standings with six points from two wins, while Kuwait is second with one win. Having lost both its games so far, Afghanistan is at the bottom.

India’s away win against Kuwait has put Igor Stimac’s team in a strong position to progress further in the qualification cycle, something the 117-ranked side has never achieved.

Victories in its upcoming outings (away and home) against the 158-ranked Afghanistan will help India acquire nine points, and with Qatar expected to win its next two matches against Kuwait, the Blue Tigers have a real chance of jumping to second place in the standings.

India defeated Kuwait (1-0) in Kuwait City in their opening match of the qualifiers, before losing to Qatar (0-3) in Bhubaneswar.



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