Three FIFA World Cup 2022 qualification matches played: One draw and two losses. Igor Stimac-coached India's qualifying campaign has been far from perfect, and Thursday's match against Afghanistan could be the final opportunity to keep themselves alive.
While qualifying for the mega tournament still seems to be a distant dream, things aren't going to plan for the Asian Cup either. Qatar, the tournament hosts for the World Cup, lead the table with 10 points - ahead of Oman (6) and Afghanistan (3) with India fourth (2) in Group B.
Statistically, India have a tremendous head-to-head record against Afghanistan across competitions - six wins, one loss and one draw. But, the team on paper will be a little worrying to see for Stimac considering a weak defensive line and the inability to score goals.
Defender Anas Edathodika has returned to India owing to a family emergency, Sandesh Jhingan, ruled out for upto five months, continues to recover from a knee injury he suffered during India's practice match against NorthEast United FC prior to facing Bangladesh.
Midfielder Adil Khan's injury has also added to India's woes ahead of the important clash, and it will be interesting to see if he will be risked in this match or wait till the next game against Oman on 19 November.
Had it not been for Adil's late strike against Bangladesh to manage at least a draw, almost all could have been over back in October itself.
Narender Gehlot remains India's lone central defender ahead of this match. However, it remains to be seen if the 18-year-old, who is yet to play for Jamshedpur FC in the Indian Super League (ISL) will be chosen or not.
Stimac has options in right-back Rahul Bheke or left-back Subhashish Bose who could play in the central midfield role.
It will also be crucial for young midfielder Sahal Abdul Samad to create a partnership with Anirudh Thapa in central midfield. Thapa, who has been instrumental for India over the years, has created four chances in as many ISL games for Chennaiyin FC. This is apart from the 153 accurate passes he has made in the league.
However, skipper Sunil Chhetri has urged the team to go for the kill and not just be content with creating chances.
"We are creating chances. But that is not enough. We have to try our best to convert them and try to be a tougher unit while defending. We have missed against Bangladesh and we need to pull up our socks against Afghanistan," the Bengaluru FC striker had said in Dubai, where they had a few training sessions.
Whatever the mindset India have at the moment, Stimac and Co. cannot afford to continue their sloppy defensive football, and Chhetri and Co, who last scored more than one goal in a game back in January (against Thailand in the Asian Cup), will have to pull up the socks and showcase a disciplined, well-structured performance against the Afghans.
Given the teams will be player on an astroturf and sub-zero temperatures in Tajikistan capital Dushanbe, Stimac seemed a worried man, admitting that it will be very tough to play on conditions which his players are less familiar with.
In fact, the players did train on an artificial turf in New Delhi's HTC Sports Academy, but with players easily prone to injuries, it remains to be seen if the squad will be able to tackle the tough conditions.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan come into the game with midfield as their major strength. Skipper Farshad Noor has an experience of playing with Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven in their youth system, which consists of players like Zelfy Nazari and Najim Haidary.
Afghanistan, like India, have goal-scoring issues and have only scored once in three matches, with Farshad scoring the winning goal against Bangladesh. They suffered a horrific 6-0 defeat to Qatar in their opener, their recent loss came against Oman in October, going down in a 3-0 defeat.
India will hope more injuries or suspensions do not add up to the already depleted side, but will have to showcase a spirited, motivated performance if they are to find their first three points.
India: Sunil Chhetri (Captain),Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh, Pritam Kotal, Nishu Kumar, Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem, Rahul Bheke, Narender, Adil Khan, Subhasish Bose, Sarthak Golui, Mandar Rao Dessai, Udanta Singh, Jackichand Singh, Seiminlen Doungel, Raynier Fernandes, Vinit Rai, Sahal Abdul Samad, Pronay Halder, Anirudh Thapa, Brandon Fernandes, Ashique Kuruniyan, Manvir Singh, Farukh Choudhary, Lallianzuala Chhangte.
Afghanistan: Faisal Hamidi, Ovays Azizi, Ahmad Hellal Hosseini, Hassan Amin, Haroon Fakhruddin Amiri, Zelfy Nazary, Najim Haidary, Farzad Ataee, Sharif Muhammad, Ali Baset Nazari, Benjamin Nadjem, Milad Intezar, Noor Hussin, Farshad Noor, Fayal Shayesteh, Abassin Alikhil, Naeem Rahimi, Mustafa Azadzoy, Milad Intezar, Rahmatullah Khairkhah, Milad Intezar, Norlla Amiri, Zubain Amiri, Omran Haydary.