KOLKATA: Since taking charge of the Indian national team three summers ago, the Blue Tigers under Igor Stimac have blown hot and cold, setting a high standard with some spectacular defensive shows against Asian powerhouses but also embracing inconsistency failing to get it over the line against relatively easier opponents.
Come Wednesday, the Stimac project in Indian football will be facing its moment of truth. As India take on Cambodia to begin their campaign at the third and final round of Asian Cup qualifiers at the Salt Lake Stadium, not only a place in the game’s biggest stage in the continent will be up for grabs, but it is also expected to define the team’s evolution under the former Croatian World Cupper.

By Stimac’s own admission, world No. 106 India – the highest among the opponents – will start “favourites” in the group, which also has Afghanistan and Hong Kong waiting in the wings to queer the pitch for the hosts.
“We need to prove that we are favourites and we need to control as well as be ready to handle the counter-attacks (from Cambodia). I must say we are ready for that,” Stimac said on Tuesday, the eve of India’s Group D opener against Cambodia.
With 13 teams having already qualified for next year’s Asian Cup, 11 spots are still to be filled — by the six group winners and five best second-placed finishers.
India have an envious record against 171-ranked Cambodia, having won four of the five meetings between them. The India coach, however, warned his players against taking their foot off the pedal.

“I don’t look at rankings. Cambodia have come here with the same desire to win the game as we so. We need to be ready, hungry and fully motivated for these games. Today, football doesn’t have easy games anymore. That may have happened 50 years ago,” Stimac said.
With qualifying for the World Cup still looking a distant dream, defensive mainstay Sandesh Jhingan set the tone for the team’s ambitions, saying that playing in the Asian Cup must be a case of regularity and not one of rarity.
“Everyone wants to be in the World Cup and everyone has a dream to play for that. We are not at that level. But it should be normal that India play for the Asian Cup regularly, that is a stepping stone we need to concentrate on,” said Jhingan, who also scored in a 3-2 win the last time India played against Cambodia in a friendly in 2017.
Cambodia have turned to Japan and AC Milan icon Keisuke Honda to turn a corner and it remains to be seen whether the former Asian Cup winner – who supervised the Angkor Warriors’ training session here on the match-eve – can produce an upset.

“Previously we have lost to India in a couple of games, but we are not afraid of them. We will play our best to get a result,” said Cambodia’s joint-head coach Hirose Ryu, who is also from Japan.
Apart from injured Rahul Bheke, Stimac has everyone else available to pick his playing XI from. As battle lines are drawn in a likely full capacity stadium and with Sunil Chhetri back in the team, Stimac may explore the option of going for the kill early on.

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