Much was written about India's chances of qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup after they were drawn against higher-ranked Qatar and Oman in their second round qualifying group. For many, the dream was over even before it had begun.
India began life under new coach Igor Stimac by shipping in 13 goals and only winning once in the Croat's first five matches. So it would have been logical to expect India's qualifying campaign to end after their first two matches against Oman and Qatar itself. Football, however, is hardly logical. Which is why India come into the third match of their qualifying campaign with their confidence sky-high and their hopes still alive.
India were on their way to a memorable win in their first match in Guwahati only for Oman to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. India came charging off the blocks and deservedly took the lead against a stunned Omani side. However, as the match progressed, India couldn't keep up the intensity and their experienced opponents duly scored twice in the last eight minutes of the match to condemn India to a bitter defeat.
Five days later, India travelled to the home of the Asian champions Qatar, who came into the match on the back of a 6-0 hammering of Afghanistan. With the odds already stacked against them, India lost captain Sunil Chhetri on the eve of the match through illness. However, Stimac's men, led by an inspired Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, kept the Qataris at bay to come away with a morale-boosting and memorable 0-0 draw. Suddenly, the Oman loss hurt just a bit more.
India return to the 'Mecca of Indian football' after a gap of nine years when they start as favourites to clinch their first win of the qualifying campaign against Bangladesh at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata on Tuesday.
"The Bangladesh match will be very different from the last two matches we played. Against Oman and Qatar, we were not the favourites. No one backed us to get positive results. But now, the pressure is on us. We are ready and our expectation is to win the game because winning will allow us a chance to keep dreaming," Stimac said ahead of the clash.
One of the main reasons why India can still dream has been Stimac's nurturing of young players and sticking with them even when results have not gone the team's way. Moreover, his attacking style of play has brought out the best out of the likes of Sahal Abdul Samad, Ashique Kuruniyan and Lallianzuala Chhangte. After years of watching Chhetri drag his team over the line on countless occasions, India seem to have finally found players who can take over from the 35-year-old once he hangs his boots.
Jhingan misses out
In the lead up to the match, Stimac will have to fill a Sandesh Jinghan-sized hole in the heart of his defence after the centre-back suffered an ACL injury in India's practice match against NorthEast United FC.
After shuffling around his defence at the Kings Cup and the Inter Continental Cup where India leaked goals aplenty, Stimac had finally settled with the pairing of Jhingan and Adil Khan with the duo putting in solid displays against Qatar and Oman. With Jhingan likely to miss the next three qualifying matches, Stimac has now been forced to once again stitch up an effective centre-back partnership.
Even though Rahul Bheke has been drafted back into the squad after recovering from a groin injury, it is likely that Stimac would only start him from the bench against Bangladesh. That could see either Anas Edathodika or Subhasish Bose partnering Adil Khan with Mandar Rao Dessai keeping his place at left-back.
Despite the issues in defence, it will be India's attack which will be focused upon on Tuesday. When the groups were drawn, India's fixtures against Bangladesh and Afghanistan were marked as must-win matches for India to have any hopes of making it to the third round. Given their start however, the fixtures now provide India the perfect opportunity to flex their attacking prowess and pump up their goal difference.
With Rowllin Borges suspended, Vinit Rai is in contention to start alongside Anirudh Thapa in defensive midfield. The Bengaluru FC attacking trio of Chhetri, Udanta Singh and Ashique Kuruniyan will likely cause the Bangladeshi defence problems with their trickery and link up play.
After impressing against Qatar with his silken touches and mazy dribbles, Sahal will be the one to watch out for against Bangladesh. The Kerala Blasters midfielder has grown in confidence under Stimac and has provided India with a gifted creator to build the future around.
With preparations for the sixth season of the Indian Super League well underway, the Indian players come into the match having gained valuable match time and won't be lacking in fitness as they did in the Oman clash.
India need to build upon their spirited showing against Oman and Qatar and a dominant win on Tuesday will go a long way in keeping their World Cup dreams alive.
Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh, Kamaljit Singh
Defenders: Pritam Kotal, Rahul Bheke, Adil Khan, Narender Gahlot, Sarthak Golui, Anas Edathodika, Mandar Rao Dessai, Subhasish Bose
Midfielders: Udanta Singh, Nikhil Poojary, Vinit Rai, Anirudh Thapa, Sahal Abdul Samad, Raynier Fernandes, Brandon Fernandes, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Ashique Kuruniyan
Forwards: Sunil Chhetri, Balwant Singh, Manvir Singh
Goalkeepers: Ashraful Islam Rana, Anisur Rahman Zico, Shahidul Yousuf Sohel
Defenders: Bishwanath Ghosh, Rahmat Mia, Yeasin Khan, Tutul Hossain Badsha, Riyadul Hasan Rafi, Yeasin Arafat, Raihan Hasan
Midfielders: Jamal Bhuyan, Biplu Ahmed, Robiul Hasan, Sohel Rana, Arifur Rahman, Mamunul Islam, Mohammad Ibrahim
Forwards: Tawhidul Alam Sabuz, Nabib Newaj Jibon, Motin Mia, Mahbubur Rahman Sufil, Jewel Rana, Saad Uddin