Intercontinental Cup 2019: An upbeat India face lower-ranked Tajikistan in tournament opener
Defending champions India will start their campaign against Tajikistan as they start their preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers
India will begin their Intercontinental Cup campaign against Tajikistan on Sunday at the EKA Stadium in Ahmedabad
The tournament will serve as preparation for India for the joint qualification campaign for the 2023 Asian Cup and the 2022 FIFA World Cup
India, currently ranked 101 in FIFA charts, had won the first edition of the tournament last year in Mumbai
Ahmedabad: Buoyed by the promising start under newly appointed coach Igor Stimac, defending champions India begin their campaign in the Intercontinental Cup football tournament against Tajikistan here on Sunday.
The tournament will be Stimac's second assignment since taking over as the head coach of the Indian team. In the first tournament under his charge, India had finished third in the King's Cup last month with a first-ever away win over Thailand.
India, currently ranked 101 in FIFA charts, had won the first edition of the tournament last year in Mumbai.
They start as favourites on Sunday against their 120th ranked opponents. All the four teams will play each other once, with the top two teams making it to the final, slated for 17 July.
This is the first time Gujarat is hosting a senior men's international competition. The tournament is being played at the EKA Stadium.
Stimac has named most of the players who were in the Kings Cup squad with the addition of a few more, including Anas Edathodika, who was called out of retirement to strengthen the India defence.
In the King's Cup, the Indian central defence had looked shaky, especially against higher-ranked and eventual champions Curacao. India had lost 1-3. The return of Edathodika, who had called it quits after India's AFC Asian Cup campaign in January is expected to boost the defence.
Stimac, a central defender himself in the third-place finishing Croatian team in the 1998 World Cup, had picked the problem area during the King's Cup. Edathodika has had a good understanding with Sandesh Jhingan with whom he had paired up for many matches before he announced his retirement.
For talismanic striker Sunil Chhetri, who seemed to be playing his best football in the last couple of years, it could be yet another super show after scoring a whopping eight goals out of India's 11 in their triumphant campaign last year.
The 34-year-old has become India's most capped player with 108 appearances during the King's Cup, going past former captain Bhaichung Bhutia's 107. Tajikistan are best remembered for being defeated 4-1 by India in the final of the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup in New Delhi, leading the path for the Blue Tigers to qualify for the 2011 Asian Cup.
Tajikistan have never qualified for the Asian Cup and their biggest achievement till date is winning the inaugural 2006 AFC Challenge Cup in Bangladesh. They have never had a FIFA ranking in double digits and they have not done too well in the last one year.
Head coach Usmon Toshev, who took charge in November last year, has built a new team after Tajikistan failed to qualify for the Asian Cup. He is yet to taste success in the five games he has been in charge.
Under him, Tajikistan lost twice to Oman followed by a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Bahrain in December last year. A 1-1 draw against Afghanistan preceded a narrow 1-0 loss away to China in the June international window. Most of the visiting players are from Istiklol, the domestic champions.
Stimac, who conducted a 10-day camp in Mumbai prior to the tournament, said his team was here to win the tournament.
"We have a new team and our focus is on progressing our game. We are here to win the tournament. But that is not the first priority. I will not be putting too much pressure on the players for results. But will be looking at how the players respond to certain situations on the field," he said at the pre-match press conference.
"The time we have to work is limited. We cannot afford to waste even a second. The fact that we gave so many debuts in Thailand (at the King's Cup) shows clearly that we are looking at the future of Indian football. We are one of the youngest national teams in the world," Stimac, who had helped Croatia qualify for the 2014 World Cup, said.
Stimac said he was placing faith and giving chances to young players with good technical abilities. "I am happy that the players are learning very fast. The process will take time. I will do everything I can to make sure that we succeed."
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