Tehran: Indian football team will face its toughest test in the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers when it takes on Asia's highest ranked side Iran, sans influential striker Sunil Chhetri, at their own backyard here today.
Sunil Chhetri. Pic/AFP
160th-ranked India were dealt a body blow when Chhetri, the country's highest scorer in international football, was ruled out with a groin injury just before the team boarded the flight to Tehran. In Chhetri's absence, the mantle of leading the side has fallen on the young shoulders of Jeje Lalpekhlua.
The Indians, whose campaign have been nothing short of a disaster, are currently placed last in their group and will have one home match against Turkmenistan on March 29 left after the Iran game.
A loss tomorrow against the Asian heavyweights Iran, who are ranked as high as 44th in the current FIFA rankings, will also throw the Indians out of contention for a berth for the 2019 Asian Cup from this campaign, which also doubles up as the qualifying tournament for the continental showpiece. Guam, who are currently on fourth spot in Group D, are four points above India who will end at the bottom if they lose today.
India, who had also failed to qualify for the 2015 Asian Cup, will then have to play a separate play-offs round to book a berth for the final qualifying round of the 2019 edition. Coach Stephen Constantine is aware that the game at the Azadi Stadium will stretch his team to the limit. "Playing Iran in Iran is as tough as it can get. It's like David vs Goliath on the field. Iran are the Giants of Asia," Constantine said at the pre-match media interaction.
The Briton, who is in his second stint with the team, added, "We have huge respect for Iran. We understand that we will be without the ball for most part of the match. We will try to stop them. We will fight and try to get something out from the match." "We have four key players missing. We are a young side. On paper, we have nothing to lose. We will give everything which we have. If we can take anything out of this game it will be a bonus," Constantine said.
Iran have consistently qualified for the World Cup and several of their established players either are, or have, played in Europe and some of the new ones are regularly in the news with premier European clubs expressing interest. The trip down memory lane is not that encouraging for India, who last beat Iran in 1959. After that it has all been one-way traffic.
For the 22-member squad whose average age is around 24, there are four players who haven't made their international debut as yet. And there is a 18-year old in the squad as well. Tomorrow may see someone break into the Indian team. The India coach knows that Iran will also have a huge crowd backing them.
"The decibel levels are high. When they are in full voice it's simply fantastic. Iranians are very passionate about their football and it can be intimidating. But that's the beauty of football," he quipped, adding, "But when we step onto the field, we will carry with us our confidence and full respect for Team Melli but we won't fear them."
The build-up hasn't been great for India as they were denied permission to train at the main stadium yesterday, prompting Constantine to express his displeasure. Eight group winners will advance to the third round of the World Cup qualifiers, as well as straight to the 2019 Asian Cup in United Arab Emirates, along with the four best runners-up.
The other four runners-up will progress to the third round of qualifying for the Asian Cup, along with all the third-placed teams and the four best fourth-placed teams. Finally, the remaining 12 teams will have to negotiate past two rounds of play-offs for eight spots in the Asian Cup third qualifying round.