India’s football team faces an uphill battle as they take on Australia, title contenders in the opening group match of the AFC Asian Cup in Al Rayyan on January 13. Eliminated in the group stage in their last two appearances in 2011 and 2019, India is in Group B with Australia, Uzbekistan, and Syria. Their hopes of advancing to the round of 16 depend on the outcome of the match against Syria on January 23, as Australia and Uzbekistan are currently ahead in terms of quality. However, a win against Syria could put India in third place in the group, giving them a chance for a knockout round berth. The top two teams from each group, along with four best third-placed sides from six groups, progress to the knockout round of 16.
Head coach Igor Stimac and captain Sunil Chhetri have acknowledged that Australia and Uzbekistan are likely out of reach for India, as they are ranked 25th and 68th in FIFA ranking, respectively. India’s history of success against Syria, having beaten them in the 2007 and 2009 Nehru Cup tournaments, provides a ray of hope for the team. This knockout round berth would be a significant achievement for India, who have come close in previous Asian Cup editions, and particularly for Chhetri, in what will be his last appearance in the prestigious tournament. Chhetri, the 39-year-old talisman, has scored four goals in six matches, making him the top scorer among Indian players.
India will be the clear underdogs when they face Australia, the 2015 champions who have ambitions of regaining the title. Australia is a regular side in the FIFA World Cup from Asia, and they made it to the round of 16 in the previous edition in Qatar. The Socceroos boast a mix of experienced and young players, with the majority plying their trade in European leagues.
India’s best available squad is without Anwar Ali, Jeakson Singh, and Ashique Kuruniyan due to injuries. Chhetri, despite his advancing age, remains a key player for the team. However, their task of breaching the Australian defense, led by captain Mathew Ryan, will not be easy. The number of goals conceded may play a significant role in deciding who progresses to the round of 16 as the third-place team.
With a history of eight matches between the two countries, Australia has won four times, India thrice, and one game ended in a draw. The match between India and Australia will also see VAR technology make its debut in the Asian Cup, with Japan’s Yoshimi Yamashita creating history by becoming the first woman referee to take charge of a game in the tournament.
In conclusion, India faces an uphill battle in their quest to advance to the knockout round of 16. However, with their determination and the talent of their key players, a surprise may be in store for the mighty Australian team.