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India eye 3 points in FIFA World Cup Qualifier against weakened Afghanistan | Football News

Bolstered by the return of Jeakson Singh and Anwar Ali, the Indian football team will renew its quest for a maiden entry into the third round of FIFA World Cup Qualifiers when it faces a weakened Afghanistan here on Thursday.

Bengaluru: Indian Captain Sunil Chhetri reacts after winning the match against Pakistan at SAFF Championship 2023 at Kanteerava Stadium(PTI)
Bengaluru: Indian Captain Sunil Chhetri reacts after winning the match against Pakistan at SAFF Championship 2023 at Kanteerava Stadium(PTI)

With mid-field general Jeakson and centre-back Anwar back in the line-up after long injury layoffs, because of which India suffered in recent past, the Blue Tigers will fancy their chances against the lower-ranked opponents in the second-round preliminary joint qualification match.

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With three points and one win from two matches, India currently occupy the second place in the Group A pecking order.

Reigning Asian champions Qatar lead the standings with six points from two wins, while Kuwait are second with one win. Having lost both their games so far, Afghanistan are placed last.

India’s away win against Kuwait has put Igor Stimac’s team in a strong position to progress further in the qualification cycle, something the 117-ranked side has never achieved.

Victories in their upcoming outings (away and home) against the 158-ranked Afghanistan will help India acquire nine points and with Qatar expected to win their next two matches against Kuwait, the Blue Tigers have a real chance of jumping to second place in the standings.

India defeated Kuwait (1-0) in Kuwait City in their opening match of the qualifiers, before losing to Qatar (0-3) in Bhubaneswar.

Since their first-ever meeting way back in 1949, India and Afghanistan have met regularly and the regional rivalry has not run its course even after the latter left SAFF in 2016.

The face-off continued in the World Cup Qualifiers, Asian Cup Qualifiers and other continental and invitational tournaments, with India having their nose ahead on most occasions.

Nevertheless, the Afghans have always been a difficult opposition to overcome, fighting till the final whistle.

Nobody in this Indian squad can tell about Afghanistan better than the evergreen Sunil Chhetri, who is going strong at 39 and will be spearheading the visiting attack alongside Manvir Singh, who found the net in the team’s win against Kuwait.

Chhetri’s record against the neighbours is quite impressive, scoring four goals in eight matches including a spectacular strike from a free kick in Kolkata in 2022.

“They have progressively improved from when we met them for the first time,” said Chhetri.

“The games were comfortable, but slowly and steadily, they progressed. And because of being in the same region, the rivalry also generated.

“Hence, the games became quite close. Both India and Afghanistan have improved in the last decade or so. Having players who play outside has really helped them,” he added.

While Chhetri remains his biggest player, Stimac should be no less thrilled with the return of Jeakson and Anwar.

Jeakson has played a pivotal role for the Blue Tigers in the last two years, and featured in 17 consecutive matches from the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers in June 2022 until the King’s Cup in Thailand last September.

His importance can be gauged by Stimac labelling him as one of the biggest misses in the squad for the Asian Cup in Qatar.

What also makes India favourites in the game is the absence of some key Afghanistan players, who have been at loggerheads with the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) since accusing the sport body of indulging in corruption, including match-fixing.

As the second round of qualifiers started, problems between the Afghanistan players and the AFF started growing.

As many as 18 players boycotted the qualifiers against Kuwait and Qatar, leaving the side with few first-team players for the outing against Mongolia, whom the Lions of Khorasan defeated to progress to the second round.

Still, players such as Zohib Islam Amiri, Omid Musawi and Balal Arezou will look to cause problems for India.

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