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World Cup qualifier: The goal is here

Stimac’s ‘priority’ WC qualifiers arrive with battle against Afghanistan

World Cup qualifier: The goal is here

India coach Igor Stimac with the players. AIFF

Tribune News Service

Daman Singh

Chandigarh, March 20

Unlike the Asian Cup where wisps of hope and fear curled up into the Qatari air, a single narrative seems to be running through the Indian camp ahead of their second-round 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Afghanistan tomorrow in Saudi Arabia’s Abha — nothing less than victory will be acceptable.

It was bound to happen after Igor Stimac’s men suffered a disastrous Asian Cup in January where they failed to secure a point in their three matches, resulting in a sharp plunge in the FIFA rankings to 117th. It was meant to happen because Stimac had ruled out their chances of going deep in the continental tournament and rather prioritised the World Cup qualifiers.

Captain Sunil Chhetri during training at Abha in Saudi Arabia. AIFF

The moment of truth has arrived, and Stimac cannot hide behind the wall of explanations anymore. Knowing that getting India into the third round of the qualifiers — which has never happened before — will help offset the Asian Cup debacle and, not to forget, land him a possible contract extension, he will be looking to deliver.

“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,” he said on the eve of the game.

The goal shouldn’t be that hard, at least for now. They are second in Group A with three points, after having won 1-0 against Kuwait before losing 0-3 to group-toppers Qatar.

A double over the Afghans (on March 22 and 26) will do India a world of good, considering the going will only get tougher in June.

Accordingly, Stimac’s optimism is a bit shaky on this. “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,” he said.

That India will come through unscathed against Afghanistan is shaping up well. The return of Jeakson Singh and Anwar Ali is a big boost. The Afghans are missing some key players due to a tussle with the national federation. The history of the tie is on India’s side as they have won seven of their 11 meetings. The Indians have had five training sessions since their arrival on March 15, acclimatising to the high-altitude conditions at 2,470 metres above sea level.

One can certainly expect India to play an aggressive brand of football, intertwined with layers of link-up play up front between Sunil Chhetri, Lallianzuala Chhangte and Manvir Singh, rather than just being a defensive block as witnessed in the Asian Cup. But Afghanistan have always been a stubborn side to break down for India, their fighting spirit bubbling till the final whistle. Moreover, they are being shepherded by Ashley Westwood, someone who is well-acquainted with the Indian football landscape.

“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,” India captain Sunil Chhetri reckoned of Westwood, who has coached Bengaluru FC, RoundGlass Punjab FC and ATK in India.

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