Indian men’s senior national football team are gearing up for the most crucial set of matches in head coach Igor Stimac’s tenure as they look to secure an AFC Asian Cup berth in the third round of the qualifiers that are to be held between June 8-14.

India are the highest-ranked team in the group that comprises of Hong Kong, Afghanistan, and Cambodia. The Blue Tigers begin their campaign against Cambodia on June 8 and will enjoy home advantage for all three matches with the games set to be played at the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata.

The Blue Tigers will start as favourties in the group thanks to their superior FIFA ranking and also the home advantage. In addition, there is no shortage of talent and youthfulness in the ranks with several players who have emerged out of the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) in the last two seasons, managing to earn a place in Stimac’s squad.

However, their quality will be put to test in the upcoming qualifiers as the favourites tag will bring with it a lot of pressure that would need living up to.

Ahead of these crucial matches, let’s take a detailed look at the Indian team and how they have been shaping up for this competition.

The Squad

Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Laxmikanth Kattimani, Amrinder Singh

Defenders: Rahul Bheke, Akash Mishra, Harmanjot Singh Khabra, Roshan Singh, Anwar Ali, Sandesh Jhingan, Subhashish Bose, Pritam Kotal

Midfielders: Jeakson Singh, Anirudh Thapa, Glan Martins, Brandon Fernandes, Deepak Tangri, Udanta Singh, Yasir Mohammad, Sahal Abdul Samad, Suresh Wangjam, Ashique Kuruniyan, Liston Colaco

Forwards: Ishan Pandita, Sunil Chhetri, Manvir Singh

Squad analysis: The Indian team for the AFC Asian qualifiers has a good blend of experience and youth. However, the seasoned campaigners are concentrated in the defensive area while the midfield is filled with a lot of exuberance. Many members of the forward line have been a part of the set up for a while but they are still very much part of the support act for Sunil Chhetri who is the main man when it comes to scoring goals.

There is hope however that the likes of Manvir Singh and Liston Colaco can soon begin contributing to goals as they do for their club side ATK Mohun Bagan.

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Strengths: When it comes to competing in this particular group, technical quality is one of India’s biggest strengths. The Blue Tigers are superior man-to-man in almost every department as compared to the three other teams in their group.

Under Stimac, India have done fairly well defensively barring a few hiccups. They also managed to hold Qatar to a 0-0 draw earlier in the World Cup qualifiers. In the third round of qualifiers, defensive solidity could be a good base to build on for Chhetri and Co.

Weaknesses: Inexperience at the international stage could be India’s only point of weakness in the upcoming qualifiers. The pressure of expectations and playing at home can get to players who haven’t had a lot of experience playing international football. Even though these players have been seasoned campaigners in the Hero ISL, donning the international jersey comes with a different kind of emotional baggage that some of the young players in the team must learn to cope with.

Goalscoring has been an issue for India under Stimac but there were signs during the SAFF Championships last year, that the Indian attack was slowly building some understanding. The form of Colaco who recently scored a hat-trick in the AFC Cup will come as a boost for India along with the return to fitness of Chhetri.

Also Read: From triumph against Tajikistan to history against Thailand: India's greatest wins in AFC competitions

Spotlight on Stimac

India’s record under the Croatian hasn’t been the best as the team has won just six out of the 25 matches under his tenure. The Croatian has been largely hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic but the Blue Tigers haven’t yet delivered the smooth, attacking brand of football that Stimac has promised.

However, the Croatian has for almost the first time in his tenure got a long period of time available to train the players as the team camped in Bellary and later in Kolkata. The head coach seemed confident that the fans will see a much different Indian team in the upcoming qualifiers after a successful camp.

There will also be a lot of eyeballs on Stimac’s team selection after the Croatian has given opportunities to plenty of youngsters to prove their worth. It will be interesting to see who he picks in what would be the most important matches in his tenure.

Stimac has often shuffled between a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 formation but considering the strength of the opponents and India’s need to take the initiative in the games, it won’t be surprising to see the Croatian name an attack-minded team.

Read: We need to be hungry, prepared and fully motivated to beat Cambodia: India head coach Igor Stimac

Players to Watch out for

Sunil Chhetri: India’s all-time leading goalscorer and often the man for the big occasion, Chhetri has so often carried the Indian team in the last few years. Even at 37, he remains India’s chief goal threat. Apart from his goals, his experience of playing in big games will be very important for the team in these matches.

Sandesh Jhingan: Considered India’s best defender for many years now, Jhingan often delivers his best performances in an Indian shirt. A true leader at the back, the ATK Mohun Bagan defender is a calming influence in defence. India always look a more solid side with him in the back four and playing against teams who would look to hit India on the counter-attack, his presence in the defence would be vital for India.

Manvir Singh: Even though his club teammate Colaco has been stealing all the headlines recently, Manvir who plays more centrally for The Blue Tigers will play a pivotal part in attack. He also has a good connection with captain Chhetri as was evident during the SAFF Championship and will be a big physical presence for India upfront.

Schedule and Broadcast detals

India vs Cambodia - June 8, 2022, 8:30 PM IST

India vs Afghanistan - June 11 2022, 8:30 PM IST

India vs Hong Kong - June 14, 2022, 8:30 PM IST

All the games will be shown live on the Star Sports network