On paper, India vs Iraq is quite the tough fixture to start the 49th King’s Cup 2023 campaign for the Blue Tigers. It’s about to be doubly difficult for Igor Stimac’s men at the 700th Anniversary Stadium in Chiang Mai, Thailand – as Sunil Chhetri, a recent father, is absent from the squad.
The King’s Cup is a short knockout format tournament between four teams – Thailand (hosts, rank 113), Lebanon (rank 100), India (rank 99) and Iraq (rank 70). Iraq are the clear favourites for the tournament as the seventh-highest ranked team in Asia, while India (18), Lebanon (19) and Thailand (21) are of a relatively equal level.
India have faced Iraq on six occasions in their history, drawing twice and losing four while having never defeated their opponents. Stimac is aware of their quality, saying “I hope that we’re going to give everything on the pitch to do something good against a strong side like Iraq, who are Arabian Gulf Cup champions. After beating Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, they are one of the clear favourites in the upcoming Asian Cup. So it’s going to be very difficult for us, but I hope our boys will enjoy the game.”
However, Jesus Casas, coach of Iraq and once of Cadiz’s youth-team when Stimac featured for the senior side from 1992-1994, rates India quite highly, saying “India are not easy. We have watched their matches. They are a very good team, very organised. They know a lot of ways to attack. They can play short ball and long ball. But our target is to win this tournament and prepare for the World Cup qualifiers.”
India’s recent form, having won three tournaments in 2023 (Tri-Nations Cup, Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championship), has raised expectations. It’s a long way away from India’s last appearance in the King’s Cup in 2019 – which was Stimac’s first tournament in charge of India. The Croatian acknowledged the evolution of the team, saying “It’s been four years since the last time we participated here. It was a really great experience for our young team at the beginning of our work. We are four years older now. We have a clearer picture about our capacities and possibilities, and what India can do and achieve.”
In Sunil Chhetri’s absence, all eyes are on Lallianzuala Chhangte to shoulder the goal-scoring burden, with the AIFF Player of the Year looking forward to the game, saying “We are not just here to participate but to win. We are approaching this tournament seriously. Our first match against Iraq is going to be very difficult. I hope we can come up with a positive result. We are ready for the challenge.”
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