The largest football tournament in Asia, the AFC Asian Cup, is set to kick off in Qatar two days from now. India’s first match will be against 2015 champions Australia. Having qualified consistently for two seasons, the Blue Tigers find themselves in Group B alongside Australia, Uzbekistan, and Syria. This marks India’s fifth appearance in the Asian Cup, aiming to compete among the top 24 teams in Asia.
India’s Asian Cup History and Challenges
Although India has participated in the tournament for 68 years, clinching the championship has remained elusive. Their best performance dates back to 1964 when they were the runners-up, losing to Israel in the final. The Asian Cup, much like the UEFA Euro and Copa America in Europe and Latin America, respectively, holds a special place in Asian football as the largest continental tournament.
Why the Asian Cup is Significant
Similar to the Euro and Copa America, the Asian Cup is a premier football tournament for the Asian continent, featuring 24 teams from across Asia. This quadrennial event, held since 1956, is currently in its 18th edition.
- Vs Australia (January 13, 5:00 PM IST)
Australia, the 2015 champions, pose a tough challenge for India. Having qualified for the AFC Asian Cup since 2006, Australia reached the Round of 16 in the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In their last encounter, Australia defeated Bangladesh 7-0.
- Vs Uzbekistan (January 18, 8:00 PM IST)
India faces Uzbekistan in their second match, aiming for their first victory. Uzbekistan performed well in the recent World Cup qualifiers, defeating Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Palestine, and drawing against Iran.
- Vs Syria (January 23, 5:00 PM IST)
India has the opportunity to secure a win against Syria, having won three out of their last six encounters. Syria faced defeat against North Korea in the World Cup qualifiers but managed draws against Kyrgyzstan and Malaysia.
Strength of the Indian Team
After winning the SAFF Championship, there has been an increase in team bonding. India continues to dominate in competitive football.
All Players Fit: All players of the Indian team are in good physical condition. Players like Sunil Chhetri, Sandesh Jhingan, and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu are available for the upcoming matches.
Strength from ISL: Regular participation in the Indian Super League (ISL) has kept the players in good form. They have had enough time for training and remain fit for all matches.
Youth with Experience in the Team: The team comprises experienced players like Chhetri, Gurpreet, Udanta Singh, and Jhingan, along with young talents like Sahal Abdul Samad and Lallianzuala Chhangte. The young players excel in dribbling, contributing to goal-scoring.
Weaknesses of the Indian Team
Poor Performance in World Cup Qualifiers: In the World Cup qualifiers, India won against Kuwait (1-0) but faced a defeat against Qatar (0-3). The team also suffered a 4-2 loss to Malaysia in a friendly match.
Limited Training Time: Due to the Indian Super League (ISL) schedule, national team players had insufficient time for training with coach Igor Stimac. The ISL season prevented the coaches from having the players for regular practice sessions.
Struggles with Set Pieces: Coach Igor Stimac emphasized the need for the team to work on set pieces (penalties, corners, and free-kicks) to convert crucial opportunities into goals.
Deficiencies in Attack: Strikers often struggle with nerves inside the penalty box. Midfielders can enter the penalty box easily, but wingers lack the required finishing skills. The team has conceded numerous goals from penalties lately.