The Indian men's football team are set to resume their journey in the FIFA World Cup 2026 and AFC Asian Cup Joint Qualification Round 2 against Afghanistan at the Damac Stadium in Abha, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday.

After a disappointing campaign in the AFC Asian Cup in January, the Blue Tigers will look to bounce back in the qualifiers and add crucial points to their tally. They began their campaign with a 1-0 victory over Kuwait and faced a 3-0 defeat to Qatar in their second game, back in November.

Tied on three points with Kuwait in Group A, Stimac’s men currently sit third in the table with an inferior goal difference compared to Kuwait. Now, in March’s fixtures, both against Afghanistan, India will look to take the giant leap in the Qualification stage with the ultimate aim of advancing to the third round of the World Cup qualifiers for the first time in their history.

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Afghanistan, on the other hand, will also look to bounce back in the qualifiers from the heavy defeats against Qatar (1-8) and Kuwait (0-4), respectively, in their opening two matches.

FIFA Rankings

Afghanistan: 158

India: 117

The Blue Tigers are the higher-ranked side going into this fixture, but they have dropped drastically in the latest FIFA rankings due to their poor performance in the AFC Asian Cup. Stimac’s men faced three defeats in the continental competition, losing to Australia (0-2), Uzbekistan (0-3), and Syria (0-1), which has seen them to drop 15 places down to 117th in the rankings.

India will aim to move up in the rankings with victories against Afghanistan, who are the lowest-ranked side in Group A of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers. Afghanistan has maintained their 158th ranking; however, they haven’t played any international matches since their defeat to Kuwait in the qualification.

Form Guide

Afghanistan: LLWWL

Considering the performances in the last five matches between the two sides, Afghanistan might have the slightest edge as they secured two victories compared to India’s one. However, both of Afghanistan's victories came against lower-ranked Mongolia in the first round of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers. Their recent form hasn’t been good, suffering two big-margin defeats to Qatar and Kuwait.

India: LLLLW 

The Blue Tigers failed to live up to their potential in the AFC Asian Cup, succumbing to defeats in all three of their group matches. More unfortunately, they failed to score any goals in any of their matches. Their last win came in their opening match of the qualifiers against Kuwait, which was a valiant 1-0 win away from home.

Key Battles

Balal Arezou vs Anwar Ali

In the absence of Sandesh Jhingan, who sustained an injury in India's final group AFC Asian Cup game against Syria, Ali is poised to take charge of the defensive line for India. The young center-back, known for his steadfastness in the Blue Tigers’ defence, will make his return to the Indian squad against Afghanistan after missing out on the continental competition due to injury.

Ali will be entrusted with the task of marking Afghanistan forward Arezou. The 35-year-old, who plies his trade in Norway, boasts nine international goals from 28 matches. Ali will be eager to silence the Afghanistan side and aid his team in securing another clean sheet in the qualification round.

Zohib Amiri vs Sunil Chhetri

A well-known figure on Indian turf, Amiri stands as the most experienced player in this Afghan squad and faces the formidable task of curtailing the influence of Indian captain, Sunil Chhetri. Chhetri, whose last goal for the national team came in the Merdeka Cup semi-final loss to Malaysia in October, will be eager to break his scoring drought and lead his team from the front, as he has been doing for over the last decade.

Match details

Fixture: Afghanistan vs India

Date: March 22, 2024

Venue: Damac Stadium, Abha, Saudi Arabia

Time: 12:30 AM IST

Telecast: DD Sports

Live streaming: Fancode