Kolkata: A Sunil ChhetricInspired India is set to finish the final leg of the Asian Cup Qualifiers on a high as they face Hong Kong on Tuesday for top spot in Group D.
With two wins each, both teams have six points, but Jon Anderson’s side is ahead of the hosts on goal difference, and the game would determine direct qualifiers for next year’s 24-team continental finals.
Only the winners of the six qualifiers will definitely advance to the tournament, where they will be joined by the five runners-up with the best records in the competition.
First place in the group would take the Blue Tigers to the finals for an unprecedented second consecutive time and fifth overall.
Hong Kong, on the other hand, is looking forward to their first Asian Cup qualifier since 1968.
In terms of rankings, India (106) may be ahead of Hong Kong (147), but the latter has shown the best attacking and defensive play of the four Group D teams in the competition to date.
While Hong Kong has easily outclassed their respective opponents, India stuttered along.
After a patchy show against Cambodia, where Chhettri scored a double, it cost a winner in stoppage time by Abdul Sahal Samad to seal three points.
After Chhetri saw his free kick cleared in the 86th minute by a header from Zubayr Amiri two minutes later, Sahal took three points.
Notably, even if one of the two teams loses or draws, they can still qualify as one of the top five teams in second place.
A second-place finish would have them waiting for results in other groups to determine if they would make one of the top five second-place finishes.
As for team news, the Blue Tigers have been up and running with Chhetri leading the pack with three goals from the first two games.
With 83 international goals in his pocket, Chhetri would try to approach the Argentine maestro Lionel Messi (86).
The Kerala Blasters The striker’s stoppage time winner would mean Indian coach Igor Stimac would have “happy headaches” when choosing the starting line-up.
It remains to be seen whether the Croatian World Cup semi-finalist will bring him into the starting line-up.
Another player who has impressed most in the first two matches is Aashique Kurunnian, who was brilliant with his speed and control.
At a time when Manvir Singh failed to impress, Aashique shone and played a key role in their turnaround against Afghanistan.
“The three points we have against Cambodia don’t mean anything if we don’t get three points against Hong Kong,” Stimac said on the eve of the match.
“We are at point zero right now. We played well, so we made it look easy. Hong Kong will of course be a different challenge.”
India’s defense would also brace for a big test against Hong Kong, who scored five goals in the first two games.
For Hong Kong, Matt Orr was in rich form as the 25-year-old striker scored each goal in both matches, and he would threaten the Indian defense with his air control and finishes.
“Of course we need to change our tactics against India. India has a strong team, but for us the situation is really positive and we are motivated to win,” said Hong Kong coach Anderson.
Kick-off: 8.30pm IST.
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