Indian men’s football team will return to action for the first time since winning the SAFF Championship in 2021 as they begin preparation for the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers in June.

Igor Stimac is tasked with guiding the men’s team to a second successive appearance in Asian Cup finals after India put up an impressive show in the 2019 finals in the UAE.

Their performances in that tournament probably merited more than a group stage exit but India would hope to make amends in China 2023 and the first step towards it would be qualifying for the tournament.

India will face familiar foes in their first challenge as part of the preparation for the qualifiers when they take on Bahrain on their own patch. The Blue Tigers suffered a heartbreaking loss against Wednesday’s opponents in the final game of the group at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup as a last-gasp Bahrain goal knocked them out in dramatic fashion.

Stimac’s men will have a chance to show their progress since that painful loss in Sharjah and get a result to show that they are ready to freshly embrace the Asian Cup challenge.

Fifa ranking

India: 104

Bahrain: 89

Head-to-head record

India are winless against Bahrain in the six encounters between the two teams. In fact, the Blues Tigers have lost their last five matches against Bahrain. The only draw between the two teams came in the first meeting between the two sides in 1982.

India lost 0-1 to Bahrain in their last meeting at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.

Players to watch out for

The newcomers: After one of the most closely-contested Hero ISL seasons that also saw an extra Indian take to the field for every match, head coach Stimac has had plenty of new options available to him.

In goal, Hero ISL Golden Glove winner Prabhsukhan Singh Gill will look to make a mark in national colours at the senior level after a superb season with Kerala Blasters FC. His teammate, Ruivah Hormipam will also look to make an impact in his first stint with the senior national team.

Hero ISL Emerging Player of the year, Roshan Naorem will give Stimac’s side a new dimension from full-back position should he play and will also add to India’s threat on set-pieces. Anwar Ali would also be keen to fight for the defensive spots after earning a place in the senior side.

In midfield, Suhair VP has earned a recall with Stimac praising his ability to find the net from midfield. With India needing to have their scoring boots on during the Asian Cup qualifiers, Suhair who impressed with NorthEast United FC this season could be a key player. Aniket Jadhav will look to find a place for him in the senior national team after making a place in the Hyderabad FC starting XI his own and delivering the goods for Manuel Marquez’s side. Bengaluru FC’s Danish Farooq will provide a Stimac with a different kind of option in midfield with his intensity.

The seasoned campaigners: Stimac put his faith behind Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in the pre-match press conference ahead of the Bahrain match and reiterated that he remains the best goalkeeper in India despite the growing competition for his spot.

Elsewhere, Sandesh Jhingan will return to national colours after a gap and will look to lead the defensive line in the coming matches. Chinglesnsana Singh and Subhasish Bose would hope to keep their place in the side after solid seasons for their respective Hero ISL clubs leaving the likes of Pritam Kotal, Rahul Bheke, Seriton Fernandes and the impressive Akash Mishra to fight for the remaining spot.

India will be without Apuia and Suresh Singh Wangjam who started in midfield in most of the recent matches opening up opportunities for Anirudh Thapa, Pronay Halder, Jeakson Singh and the injury-returnee Brandon Fernandes to make their mark.

Up front, India will be miss Sunil Chhetri for the friendlies against Bahrain and Belarus meaning Manvir Singh and Liston Colaco are likely to lead the attack.

Opponent watch:

Bahrain coached by former Portugal youth coach Helio Sousa have been in fine form. They beat DR Congo and Uganda in recent friendlies and had a good Fifa World Cup qualifying campaign. They finished third behind Iran and Iraq but lost just one game in the qualifiers.

They beat Hong Kong and Cambodia, India’s opponents in the upcoming Asian Cup qualifiers by heavy margins and thus will provide India with the perfect test ahead of the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.