India will square off against Afghanistan at a neutral venue, which offers challenging climatic conditions.

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Two points from three FIFA 2022 World Cup qualifiers pretty much sums up the current shape of the Indian football team. The Sunil Chhetri-led side has not only struggled in front of the goal, but lack of defensive stability means India’s string has been breached by the opponents more often than not.

So as they travel to the Central Republican Stadium in Dushanbe, Tajikistan to take on Afghanistan on Thursday, November 14, it is safe to say it remains a make or break game for the Blue Tigers. Statistics do favour India on paper, as Afghanistan – ranked lower than India – have conceded more goals in the qualifiers. But a recent win over Bangladesh sees Anoush Dastgir’s side acquiring the third spot in their Group E, while India sit fourth.

History, meanwhile, esteems India as well given that the team enjoy a superior head-to-head record with six wins out of eight. All those figures, however, will be put to rest once the players take the field. Taking on Afghanistan won’t be a cakewalk, to say the least, and now that the team is without a few of their first team members, the sense of panic might compound the Indian camp.

Lack of defensive structure

India’s defensive structure has taken a big hit since Sandesh Jhingan’s absence. That 26-year-old, who is recovering from a knee injury, has been a rock-solid presence for the team and his unavailability deemed evident particularly against Bangladesh, who enjoyed regular forays during the course of 90 minutes.

Another worry for Stimac is the absence of Anas Edathodika, who recently travelled back home due to his mother’s sudden demise. So now Stimac needs to figure out who amongst Narender Gahlot and Sarthak Golui will partner Adil Khan in the central defence. But then again, injuries are something that every manager deals with and there’re absolutely no excuses for it.

Challenging conditions

“The climatic condition in Dushanbe is very different from what we have experienced in India at this time. It’s very cold and mercury level drops to closer to sub-zero,” Stimac told PTI in an interview on Tuesday.

Indian teams and clubs have struggled to make an impact in Dushanbe over the years and the climatic conditions have certainly played a bit part at it. The last Indian team to have played at the venue was Bengaluru FC, who locked horns with Istiklol, and the team squared up on the losing side.

However, the weather is not the only concern troubling the Indian team. The match, as it turns out, is set to be played on an unfamiliar astroturf, something which the Indian is certainly not used to. But given that the available players are now in full shape – with as many as 20 Indian Super League fixtures being played – there is no margin for error from hereon.

An unpredictable opponent:

Afghanistan, despite coming on the back of a 3-0 hammering at the hands of Oman, remain one of the most unpredictable units of the tournament. Cruising high on momentum, the Afghans are used to an extremely rigid style of play. The players use their brute and physical strength to trouble their opponent and this is something that the Indian team needs to keep a track of.

As for India, the team has only scored two goals in their last three games and Stimac will be hoping the likes of Ashique Kuruniyan, Brandon Fernandes and Manvir Singh step up to the chase in order to ease the pressure off captain Sunil Chhetri, who himself has struggled to find the net in ISL.

Stimac will have no excuse if his team end up on the losing side, as the Indian Super League has provided enough match practice, and there certainly aren’t any tired legs.

“We have improved a lot since our first game (against Oman),” Stimac added during his interview. “We can show what we are capable of without our key players sometimes (defender Sandesh Jhingan and midfielder Rowlin Borges). The result against Afghanistan in Dushanbe will have a major impact on the entire team. A win will boost our confidence by manifold before we head to Muscat.”

Feature image courtesy: AFP / Dibgyangshu Sarkar