Blue Tigers’ trials at top echelon begins with Australia battle

DOHA, QATAR: The AFC Asian Cup is as big as it gets for India at this moment in its footballing history. On the brink of their fifth appearance on the continental stage, the Blue Tigers begin their tryst with destiny against the mighty Australians at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Doha, on Saturday, January 13, 2024.

India, for the first time in the history of the competition, have qualified for back-to-back editions. Carrying a generation of players that grew up when India qualifying for the continental tournament was not a usual sight, this set of players will set out to make that right, as they look to not only normalise India’s appearance at the Asian Cup but to also do something that they have never done before – make the jump to the knockout rounds.

“We are excited that the kick-off time is close. We have had a nice 12 days here working hard. All the boys are excited and we are looking forward to the game. Hopefully, it turns out to be wonderful for our 17 debutants. It is a place for them to learn,” said head coach Igor Stimac.

The Blue Tigers enjoy a healthy head-to-head record against the Aussies, having won twice and lost once against the Socceroos, but both victories came almost seven decades ago. The most recent match played between these two sides was also an opening game for the two in the 2011 edition of the AFC Asian Cup, also held in Doha, which ended in a 0-4 loss for India.

Stimac stressed the importance of the set pieces, especially against physical opponents like Australia.

“We don’t have to give away set pieces. We know the strengths of Australia. They play very pragmatic football. They caused a lot of problems to England (in a friendly in October) and we can expect the storms coming out of them. We need to stay compact and do everything possible to stop crosses from the flanks.

Stimac was realistic about India’s prospects in the Asian Cup, stating that the most important thing is to play good football.

“Our target is to have a good performance in the next three games as a team and as a country and use the experience from the tournament for the future.”

However, the India coach shifted all the weight of expectations away from the players, and said that the Blue Tigers are in Doha to embrace the challenges.

“I’m not putting any pressure on players. We will go out and fight. It’s going to be a difficult match for us. We all know the strengths of Australia, and their achievements as well. Their players are coming in from European clubs, where they’ve been playing competitive football week in, and week out. It’s not easy. But we are here to embrace all such challenges.”

India midfielder Sahal Abdul Samad, who was at the pre-match press conference with Stimac in Doha, said, “Our preparations have been very good. We have had some hard and some light training sessions so far, and we’ve prepared well for the game against Australia. We are all really pumped up to give it our best in the game, and we’re hoping for the best.”

India’s game against Australia will kick off at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Doha, Qatar, on Saturday, January 13, 2024, from 5 pm IST and will be broadcast live on Sports 18, and streamed live on Jio Cinema.

Also Read: Lallianzuala Chhangte: We represent 1.4 billion Indians in the national team; we fight for each other and the entire nation

Also Read: Punjab Football Club held Chennaiyin FC in the Kalinga Super Cup

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