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FIFA World Cup Qualifier: Sunil Chhetri may start behind striker Vikram Pratap as India meet Afghanistan | Football News

Vikram Pratap Singh could lead the line as India look to put behind a disappointing Asian Cup campaign and notch up their first win in 2024. Up next is Afghanistan in the Saudi Arabian city of Abha, which is in the Asir Mountains at an altitude of 2,270m. Because it is being held in the month of Ramzan, the match will start at 10pm local time (12:30am Friday IST).

India's Sunil Chhetri controls the ball during the Asian Cup Group B match (AP)
India’s Sunil Chhetri controls the ball during the Asian Cup Group B match (AP)

Under Igor Stimac, head coach since May 2019, India’s only win against Afghanistan came in the 2022 in the Asian Cup qualifier. Sahal Abdul Samad, who scored the late winner in the 2-1 victory, is ruled out of this World Cup qualifier with a possible hamstring strain. “He lifted his leg too high while going for a ball during training on Tuesday,” said a member of the support staff over the phone on Wednesday. Not authorised to speak to the media, the staff member requested anonymity.

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Vikram Pratap Singh will hope to take his Mumbai City FC form into this Group A 2026 World Cup and 2027 Asian Cup qualifier. He scored a hattrick against NorthEast United before ISL paused for the international break. With seven goals, he is seventh in the race for the golden boot and the highest scorer among Indians.

Manvir Singh, Sunil Chhetri and Lallianzuala Chhangte are likely to play behind Vikram Pratap Singh as India will look to take early control. Trying to seize the initiative could also mean using full backs Akash Mishra and Nikhil Poojary’s speed to add numbers in the front third. Lalengmawia ‘Apuiah’ Ralte should start alongside either Jeakson Singh or Deepak Tangri in central midfield, said the member of the team staff. Rahul Bheke and Anwar Ali are likely to be the centre-backs with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in goal.

On zero points having shipped 12 goals and scored one, Afghanistan will be eliminated if they lose on Friday and in Guwahati on March 26. Under former Bengaluru FC coach Ashley Westwood since last January, the squad for this game has only eight from the 23 that played the Asian Cup qualifiers. Five of the eight did not start against India.

Top players have boycotted the national team protesting at how Afghanistan Football Federation has been treating them. Among those missing are midfielders Farshad Noor, Faysal Shayesteh and Noor Husin. All three were part of the group of 18 players who, as per a report in The Guardian last November, have written to FIFA and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) alleging corruption at the federation and bonuses being denied. Afghanistan’s squad in Saudi Arabia has 12 players from European lower leagues, two in Canada, one each in Australia, India and Indonesia. Three on the roster play at home.

“The boys are excited. We are looking forward to testing ourselves against India,” said Westwood at the press conference on Wednesday. “India brings out the best in us,” said skipper and defender Zohib Amiri.

The ties against Kuwait and Qatar in June should have a greater bearing on whether India make it to the third round of the qualifiers, which will be a first, and seal a berth in the next Asian Cup, but as Stimac told aiff.com: “Each game in important from the aspect of self-confidence and rankings.”

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