Last-Gasp Wins and New Faces – India’s Road to the 2023 Asian Cup

Indian Team Celebrates their AFC Asian Cup Qualification triumph. Source: X (AIFF)

On the morning of June 14, 2022, Sunil Chhetri and his team made headlines, announcing India’s qualification for the AFC Asian Cup 2023 in Qatar before their last match of the Qualifiers against Hong Kong. In the evening, India triumphed 4-0 over Hong Kong, concluding an unbeaten run in the final round. Ishan Pandita, scorer of the fourth goal, celebrated by kicking the corner flag, turning Yuba Bharati Krirangan into a theatre of euphoria. Now, the Indian contingent for the upcoming AFC Asian Cup are in Doha, possibly wishing for another such night when the Blue Tigers face Australia, Uzbekistan, and Syria in the coming weeks. However, they also acknowledge the reality and the hard work required to make it happen.

As Igor Stimac and his boys gear up for the tournament, let’s look back at India’s impressive performance in the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers in Kolkata. The Blue Tigers defeated Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Hong Kong to seal their berth in Qatar. Demand for tickets was sky-high in Kolkata as the Indian team played their first game in the City of Joy since 2019. Stimac and his team had come to the tournament on the back of three consecutive friendly defeats at the hands of Jordan, Belarus, and Bahrain. Though the coach tried many options, he struggled to find his best combination.

Stimac then gave opportunities to exciting youngsters such as Anwar Ali, Suresh Wangjam, Akash Mishra, and Naorem Roshan SIngh in the opening game against Cambodia. India started strong, with a 2-0 victory. Sunil Chhetri, the captain, again rose to the occasion with a brace.

In the second encounter against Afghanistan, India faced their toughest opponent in the group. And Chhetri again came to the rescue, scoring the 86th-minute opener, but their joy was short-lived as Haroon Amiri, Afghanistan’s defender, rose unmarked to head in an equaliser. However, in the final moments, Sahal Abdul Samad, who came on as a replacement for Chhetri, scored a clever goal from Ashique Kuruniyan’s assist, leaving the fans ecstatic.

Also Read: Sahal Abdul Samad Likely to be Sidelined for Asian Cup Campaign

Before facing Hong Kong in the final game, India received the good news that they had already qualified for the AFC Asian Cup when Palestine defeated the Philippines in a Group B match. Then the Blue Tigers further delighted fans with a 4-0 rout of Hong Kong. Chhetri scored his 84th goal, equaling the tally of Ferenc Puskas, Hungarian legend of the 1950s. Anwar Ali, Manvir Singh, and Pandita also put their names on the scoresheet.

Apart from India’s dominating performance, Stimac found relief in the number of youngsters showcasing their capabilities in the national colors. Mishra and Anwar caught everyone’s attention with their courageous performances. When 48,216 fans at the venue gave a round of applause to the Blue Tigers for their performances throughout the Qualifiers, there were glimmers of hope on the faces of the players as well. In the coming years, this team would achieve more accolades. In 2023, India bagged the Tri-Nation, Inter-Continental, and SAFF Cups, and reached the Round of 16 at the Asian Games with a squad mostly filled with novices. They also beat Kuwait in their own backyard in the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers.

As they gear up for their toughest test in years in the Asian Cup Opener against Australia, Indian football enthusiasts once again have raised expectations, despite the knowledge that Australia are far ahead of India not only in the FIFA rankings, but also superior in terms of physicality, playing style and all. Still, there’s hope that Chhetri and Co. can script a new underdog story in Qatar.

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