It's that time of the qualification cycle again when Indian fans get their hopes high for a World Cup berth. On Wednesday, 17 July, the draw for the second round for AFC's World Cup 2022 qualification took place.
The 40 countries participating from Asia were divided into eight groups of five teams each to set the ball rolling for the 2022 event, which is set to take place in Qatar. India were in Pot 3 of the draw and eventually ended up being clubbed with hosts and Asian champions Qatar, Oman, Afghanistan and Bangladesh in Group E.
"It will be an enormous challenge for our young team. We have been drawn into a very tough group," India coach Igor Stimac said after the draw.
Top 34 ranked teams in Asia get a direct entry into the second round draw while teams ranked 35-46 have to compete in the first round of qualifiers. India's healthy ranking helped them to get a direct entry into Thursday's draw. On the previous occasion, a lowly-ranked India were forced to play Nepal in the first round of qualifications.
India avoiding heavyweights like Japan, South Korea, Australia and Saudi Arabia may have provided some hope but the Blue Tigers are still the third highest ranked side in their group at 101, while Qatar (55) and Oman (86) are placed higher than Indian side. Qatar and Oman are also the favourites to finish at the top of the group. India had Oman in their second round group of 2018 event as well, in which India lost 1-2 at home before succumbing to a 0-3 loss at Muscat.
The eight group winners will advance to the third round of qualifiers along with four best runners up. In case of India's group, if Qatar, who have already qualified for 2022 event by the virtue of being the host, finish at top of group then five best second-placed teams will jump to round three and if Qatar finishes as one of the four best runners up, the same will be applied.
A top-two finish is a must for India to qualify for round three and it will not be a stretch to consider that the chances of securing a straightforward entry in the next round will oscillate between near-impossible to impossible.
India, who put up an impressive show with a fighting campaign during the 2019 Asian Cup tournament, have been under a transition since the departure of former coach Stephen Constantine. New coach Stimac is under the process of implementing a new brand of football while identifying his main players.
India's first two matches are against Oman (5 September) and Qatar (10 September) " the two big challenges " that should help Sunil Chhetri and Co to measure their preparations and chances. India don't boast a good record against the two teams, however, their standing in world football has improved in last few years, as reflected in the rankings.
Eyes on Asian Cup qualification
The FIFA World Cup qualifiers also double up as the qualifying process for Asian Cup. The top 12 sides from second round will also get a direct qualification to the 2023 Asian Cup edition, while the remaining teams will compete for the other 12 spots in the 24-team continental showdown.
There are conflicting reports on what could be the process for selecting the reaming 12 teams. While, AFC mentions that, the next best 24 sides, after first 12 which qualify for third round of World qualifiers, will play a separate competition for the 12 slots of Asian Cup. Few reports also suggest that, similar to the 2019 edition's qualifying process, the next best 16 teams will get a direct entry to third round of Asian Cup qualifiers while the remaining sides will fight it out in the play-off to reach third round.
Regardless of the format adapted, India must look to earn maximum points in case to make their path of Asian Cup smoother. India were forced to play the play-off the previous time due to finishing last in their second round qualifiers' group.
In addition, India will need to perform better against Afghanistan (149) and Bangladesh (183). Afghanistan, in particular, have improved their game in the last few years but on paper India are expected to collect full points from matches against neighbours Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
"We need to respect everyone, not only teams from Pot 1, and Pot 2, but even teams from Pot 3, and Pot 4. The Intercontinental Cup showed to all how strange a game of football is. The two teams which are playing the final (Tajikistan, and DPR Korea) are the lowest FIFA ranked teams in the tournament. That shows that everyone can beat everyone," Stimac said referring to Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
The Intercontinental Cup 2019 also exposed India's soft underbelly " their defense. Best of the bet Sandesh Jhingan could only gain few minutes of experience before being substituted in the DPR Korea game as he continues to struggle with injury. Anas Edathodika, who has been called back despite retiring from international football, hasn't been able to gain enough fitness to start matches.
The honeymoon period is long over for Stimac and with the Intercontinental Cup providing the reality check, India have very little time left to word on the shortcomings. Failure to prepare in time could deal a serious blow to India's qualification route to Asian Cup over and subsequently their World Cup dreams.