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Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri along with teammate Sandesh Jhingan and coach Igor Stimac during a practice session, at the Salt Lake Stadium, in Kolkata. Image Credit: Bibhash Lodh

Kolkata: India football team head coach Igor Stimac has cautioned his team against Afghanistan, saying their players are physically very strong and could pose a bigger challenge than Cambodia in the Asian Cup Qualifiers.

India defeated Cambodia 2-0 in their opening match of the third round of AFC Asian Cup 2023 Qualifiers, but speaking ahead of the match against Afghanistan today, Stimac said, “We need to stay disciplined, concentrated and be composed on the ball.

“Afghanistan players are physically very strong. Positioning will be the key, and good reading of the game will be crucial. We need to keep tight lines, and win more duels. We need to be clever,” he added.

Cambodia take on Hong Kong in the other match. As the situation stands, India and Hong Kong are on three points each from one match, while the others are yet to open their account.

Better shape

“The last time we played Afghanistan in Doha we were better than them in each segment. Now we are in better shape than what we were last time around. I am confident about the situation we are in, and my expectations are that we will win this game,” Stimac added.

Afghanistan head coach Anoush Dastgir said, “It’s a do or die for us tomorrow against India. We need to learn from our mistakes. We have watched India and are preparing for them. Both teams know each other well. We expect a great game.”

“Indian football has been doing well in the last few years. The league structure here in India is very good.”

India team goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu described Afghanistan as “a tough side to play against”.

“They have players who play in Europe. It’s always nice to play against a team that fights. We need to win, and that’s why we are here,” Gurpreet said.

“I enjoy playing here. It’s special for me at the VYBK (Stadium). The first time I played here was in the Kolkata derby. I have been lucky to experience a full house - so I am aware how it feels, and what it means to us as players.”

Referring to coach Stimac labelling him as one of the top-5 goalkeepers in Asia, Gurpreet thanked him for “such high praise”.

High competition

“It is very encouraging when the coach backs you like that. We are working as a team, and everyone is doing their job. I am not here because of my past performances. There is very high competition for this slot. In the last 45 days I have been working tirelessly trying to improve myself as a keeper,” Gurpreet maintained.

“I try to do my job - reduce the mistakes, and be the one encouraging voice on the pitch. Confidence is key but hard work and showing up is also paramount.”

However, Stimac is yet to decide on his starting XI. “We still have another training in front of us and we need to see how people recover, and react. We need all fully fit players from this game. We will look at it after the morning screening on matchday, and decide. All options are open,” he added.