The Indian national football team will return to action after a period of five months with the Blue Tigers set to face Myanmar in the opener of the Hero Tri-Nation International Football Tournament at the Khuman Lampak Stadium, in Imphal, on Wednesday.

After the game against Myanmar, the Blue Tigers will face Kyrgyzstan at the same venue on 28th March.

Following a busy domestic season, the Hero Tri-Nation friendly tournament will help the Blue Tigers prepare for the AFC Asian Cup 2023, which is scheduled to take place early next year.

The Indian football team played previously on home soil in June 2022 where they secured qualification in the third round of the AFC Asian Cup. India topped their group with a perfect record, beating the likes of Cambodia, Afghanistan and Hong Kong to secure back to back qualifications for the AFC Asian Cup for the first time in history.

The Blue Tigers played two friendlies later on in September 2022, but did not manage to win. India played out a 1-1 draw with Singapore before going down to 0-3 defeat to Vietnam.

Stimac has named a 23-man squad for the Tournament with goalkeeper Phurba Lachenpa, Mehtab Singh, Rohit Kumar and Naorem Mahesh Singh receiving their maiden call ups. However, nine players who are currently part of the squad, were part of the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) 2022-23 final and arrived late to the camp.

Stimac spoke about his plans to rest the players who were involved in the Hero ISL final and giving chances to other players.

“We’ve got a few challenges, so far. Many of our players are exhausted after playing the Hero ISL Final, and they are in the recovery process. We need fresh legs. Our squad has 23 players, so you can definitely expect many from Manipur to start on Saturday,” said Stimac.

This will be the first time that the Indian football team will be playing in Imphal as the All India Football Federation looks to expand the reach of football throughout the country, in line with its strategic roadmap, Vision 2047. The Khuman Lampak Stadium, which was established in 1999, has a capacity of 35,000.

“Playing here in Manipur is more of a joy for our players than anywhere else. I have been highlighting the importance of playing at home in the FIFA International Windows, and we are finally getting that,” said Stimac. “It’s always better than going to some other country and playing on their soil with their arrangements.”

“I very much appreciate the Manipur Government and the Federation who helped organise this, and I hope very soon, the footballing infrastructure here will also be much better. When we all witness how much international football means to the fans, I hope the government will do much more for its infrastructure,” he added.

India goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was among the nine players who joined the camp late after the Hero ISL final. Sandhu ended up on the losing side after his team Bengaluru FC lost to ATK Mohun Bagan on penalties. However, Sandhu mentioned he was looking forward to the upcoming game.

“It’s pretty easy to lift yourself up when you’ve got a game coming up. I’m very glad and honoured to be here in a place from where a lot of footballers have come up,” he said. “The chance of playing the next game is always a motivating aspect for any player, so it did not take a lot for me to pick myself back up once again,” he added.

Opponents Myanmar are ranked 53 places below India, who are placed 106 in the FIFA rankings. Myanmar are the lowest-ranked nation in the Hero Tri-Nation Friendly Football Tournament. They were previously in action in December 2022 during the AFF Championship, but did not manage to win a game, drawing one and losing four games.

German Michael Feichtenbeiner, who took over as the head coach of Myanmar in March, will hope for a positive start to his tenure. Feichtenbeiner admitted that India are a strong side, but expressed belief in his team.

“India is probably too strong, and maybe we have no chance against them,” he said at the press conference. “I have seen some of India’s matches, and we know their strengths and weaknesses.”

“But we are here to improve our performance, and to build our future. Saturday will be our first step towards that future. If we have a good performance, I think we will make it difficult for India. I believe in our players.”

Going by the past records, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has a slight advantage against India. India have played 24 matches against Myanmar but have only won nine of them. Meanwhile, Myanmar have won 11 games with four matches ending in a draw.

India’s opening match against Myanmar will kick off at the Khuman Lampak Stadium in at 6 pm IST. The match will be broadcast and streamed live on Star Sports 3 and Disney+Hotstar, respectively.