India will be without their talismanic skipper Sunil Chhetri as they return to action after two months against a higher-ranked Iraq in the four-team King’s Cup at Chiang Mai on Thursday.
Chhetri, who played a key role in India’s title triumph in the Intercontinental Cup and SAFF Championship, has taken a break to spend time with his wife following the birth of their son.
Not just Chhetri, but India are also set to miss the seasoned duo of Lallianzuala Chhangte, who’s down with fever, and the injured Akash Mishra.
Ranked 29 places above India, who are 99th in the Fifa rankings, Iraq, who recently won the Arabian Gulf Cup, will start as firm favourites in the four-nation tournament where the winners of the two round-robin matches play the final.
In the other match, hosts Thailand will take on Lebanon later in the day. The two losing teams will fight for the bronze medal before Sunday’s final.
That India are yet to defeat Iraq in six matches (four losses and two draws) makes this all the more difficult for the Igor Stimac-coached side. The last time India faced Iraq, they had lost 0-2 in a friendly at Sharjah before the 2011 Asian Cup.
“I hope that we’re going to give everything on the pitch to do something good against a strong side like Iraq, who are Arabian Gulf Cup champions,” Stimac said in the pre-match news conference.
“After beating Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Iraq are one of the clear favourites in the upcoming Asian Cup. So, it’s going to be very difficult for us, but I hope our boys will enjoy the game,” Stimac added.
Iraq are coached by Jesus Casas, who’s junior to Stimac by six years and was a youth team player for Spanish side Cadiz CF, where the Croat played for two seasons between 1992 and 1994.
“I’m very happy to be seated here with an old friend from my playing days in Spain,” Stimac said about Casas.
The Iraq coach, too, has a lot of respect for India. “India are not easy. We have watched their matches.
“They are a very good team and very organised. They know a lot of ways to attack. They can play both the short and long ball. But our target is to win this tournament and prepare for the World Cup qualifiers,” Casas said.
Even without star performers Chhetri and Chhangte, India, based on their recent performances, shouldn’t be sitting ducks before the Iraq side.
The 2019 edition of the King’s Cup was Stimac’s debut tournament with India, where they had beaten hosts Thailand for bronze.
The Croat, who celebrated his 56th birthday on Wednesday, believes India are a much more mature group now.
“It’s been four years since the last time we participated here. It was a really great experience for our young team at the beginning of our work.
“We are four years older now. We have a clearer picture about our capacities and possibilities, and what India can do and achieve,” the India head coach emphasised.
After this tournament, a few members of the squad will head to the Hangzhou Asian Games.