3000-plus Iran fans are expected inside the Sree Kanteerava Stadium on Tuesday as Andranik Teymourian and his boys take on India in their third Group D match in the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification Round 2.
The Iranians start as clear favorites against an Indian side that has failed to win their last three international games. Embarrassed by tiny island nation Guam in their last group match, the Subrata Pal-led side are up against not just the best team in their group but also the continent.
Not often does the Indian national team get to rub shoulders with world cuppers, which is why a gutsy performance against Iran will go a long way in boosting the confidence of the boys in blue.
Head coach Stephen Constantine’s recent comments ahead of the Nepal friendly about Indian football being at death’s door probably surprised only few.
On the progress front, the national team seems to have crawled in slow motion between the two stints of the 52-year-old.
From demanding players of Indian origin (PIO) be permitted to play for the national side to his scathing indictment of television broadcasters’ interference in AIFF matters, Constantine appears to have adopted a combative approach of late.
AIFF president Praful Patel denounced the Briton’s views, stating the latter was not the custodian of Indian football and should focus on delivering results with the team.
Some believe the friction between the governing body and coach is only growing. However, most would agree that comments from both parties should have been reserved until after the hugely important game against Iran.
Iran – Asian football's powerhouse
The highest ranked Asian football team comes into the World Cup qualifier on the back of a resounding 6-0 drubbing of Guam. The 1-1 draw against Turkmenistan in their first group match appears to have woken them up from their brief slumber.
Though the Iranians haven’t set Group D on fire as yet, they are the best team in the group by some distance.
Iran offered firm proof of their pedigree during the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil when they went toe-to-toe with pre-tournament favorites Argentina in Belo Horizonte.
Team Melli, after having squandered a couple of chances to stage a monumental upset, were only silenced in injury time by Lionel Messi’s magical left foot.
The spirited display of Carlos Queiroz’s side, showcasing defensive resilience with attacking adventure, served as a lesson to emerging Asian football nations.
In another shock result, Iran beat Chile 2-0 in an international friendly in March earlier in the year. Interestingly, South Americans went on to win the Copa America four months later.
The last time Iran played against India was way back in 1992 in Kolkata, when the hosts were easily brushed aside by a 3-0 margin.
Overall, the two sides have competed against each other on 6 occasions – with Iran winning four matches.
The first duel between these two Asian sides in 1951 resulted in a 1-0 Indian win. That however was a different era in Indian football.
Th 1984 clash ended in a goalless draw.
Dilemma in defense
With not many options to pick from in the strike department and the midfield taking care of itself, a great deal of scrutiny seems to be on the backline of this Indian team. What has surprised most people, is the makeshift nature of Constantine's defense.
Having started with a combination of Arnab Mondal, Sandesh Jhingan, Pritam Kotal and Saumik Dey in the two-legged Round 1 World Cup qualifier against Nepal, the coach switched to a back four of Rino Anto, Lalchhuanmawia, Dhanachandra Singh and Mondal against Oman and Guam.
Anto was rewarded for his strong show in the I-League, while Jhingan was sidelined due to injury.
However in the August 31 friendly against Nepal, Constantine inducted Narayan Das and Dhanpal Ganesh alongside Jhingan and Kotal.
Ganesh is a defensive midfielder, while Das did not feature in a single I-League match for his club this past season.
The lack of stability in this department continues to baffle supporters of the team.
Against Iran, the Indian goal is expected to be under constant attack. With lack of continuity in defense, it remains to be seen whether the defenders can maintain high levels of coordination against a technically superior and physically powerful Iran side.
Road to UAE
Eight group winners and four best runners-up from Asia move on to Round 3 of the World Cup qualification. These 12 nations will the be drawn into two groups of six teams. Winners and runners-up of each group will qualify for showpiece event in Russia.
Teams that finish third in both groups will then play a two-legged playoff, whose winner competes in an intercontinental playoff against a CONCACAF team for the final Asian qualification spot.
Currently, India are bottom of Group D. With two games against Iran and one away tie against Oman remaining, their chances of finishing in top three are fairly remote.
However, the team's bigger incentive could be securing a place in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in UAE that will feature 24 teams for the first time, an increase of 8 from its last edition.
Ideally, the Indians could target a strong 4th place finish, which could help them enter third round of Asian Cup qualification by virtue of finishing among the four best group fourth-placed teams.
In the last few years, Bengaluru has transformed into the new hotbed of Indian football, largely due to the efforts and performances of the Bengaluru FC in the I-League. Kanteerava now ranks among the best football venues in the country, with the wonderful crowd adding a European touch to matches with imaginative chants.
The Indian side can be assured of very vocal crowd, cheering on every pass against Iran on Tuesday. The fans in return will hope for a impassioned show from the Blue Tigers.