Blue Tigers ready to pounce on Afghanistan in chock-a-block Guwahati Stadium

GUWAHATI: The Indian senior men’s team will look to pocket full points as they take on Afghanistan in the FIFA World Cup 2026 and AFC Asian Cup 2027 Preliminary Joint Qualification Round 2 on Tuesday, March 26, 2024, at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati, at 19:00 IST.

A capacity crowd is expected to fill the stands with fans set to travel from neighbouring northeastern states hoping to witness the Blue Tigers take a big step towards qualifying for Round 3 for the first time in history.

For what will be the first India match in Guwahati since a World Cup Qualifier in 2019 against Oman, the place has been buzzing for weeks, with posters and advertisements spread across the city. A large number of fans also turned up for India’s training sessions on Saturday and Sunday.

In their previous meeting just four days ago, the Blue Tigers were held to a goalless draw by Afghanistan on Saudi Arabian soil. Despite not gaining all the three points Igor Stimac and his side were desperately in the hunt for, they moved up to second place in the four-team Group A as Qatar beat Kuwait 3-0 on the same day.

After three matches played each, the double Asian champions lead the table with nine points, followed by India with four, Kuwait with three and Afghanistan with one. The top two teams in the group will qualify for Round 3 of the World Cup Qualifiers and book their berth at the 2027 AFC Asian Cup as well.

“It’s really nice to feel the atmosphere and the buzz here,” said head coach Igor Stimac at the pre-match press conference. “We were disappointed with the end result in the first game against Afghanistan. We need to make things right here. I hope there will be a good crowd here in Assam tomorrow.”

Almost 23,000 people watched India’s clash against Oman five years ago where the visitors came from a goal down to win 2-1, cancelling out Sunil Chhetri’s opening strike. Despite the defeat, it was one of India’s positive performances in the first few months of Stimac’s reign.

“We remember how well we played against Oman here the last time we were here, but that was a long time ago. We are positive and looking forward to tomorrow’s game where we’ll try to do our best. A draw is the same as a loss for us. We need to make things easier for the June game against Kuwait,” said the Croatian.

Stimac continued to lay emphasis on the home game against Kuwait in June,  and that Tuesday’s result against Afghanistan will take them one step closer to the ultimate goal of making the next round.

“What I say to my players is that nothing ends with tomorrow’s game. We are in a good position, holding the second spot in the group. We are on the verge of making history in Indian football.”

The sub-plot of the fixture will be Sunil Chhetri’s expected 150th appearance for the national team, a feat no player has ever achieved for India and only 40 players have for their country in the history of the sport. However, the captain was quick to point out that Tuesday should only be about the the Indian team and the job in hand.

“I’m honoured and privileged. After this, let’s not make tomorrow about this, and only about India versus Afghanistan,” said Chhetri.

The captain shared his thoughts on the draw four days ago. “As the game progressed, we became more desperate. When you start a game dominating and you miss chances, you have the idea that you’re chasing the game because you want to win. I think no matter who you play against, if the chances come, send them.”

That’s exactly what the Blue Tigers need to do the most after going five matches in a row without scoring. On home soil, India have netted 16 goals in the last 12 matches, and Stimac and his boys will be eager to treat the Guwahati crowd with more of them tomorrow.

The match between India and Afghanistan will be broadcast on Sports18 1, Sports18 1 HD and Sports18 3, and streamed on JioCinema.

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