India beats Hong Kong to qualify for Asia Cup

Picture by Power Sport Images Limited.

The Indian men’s football team beat Hong Kong 4-0 in its third and final Group D match of the AFC Asian Cup 2023 Qualifiers third round at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata.

Anwar Ali (1’) scored his maiden goal for India while captain Sunil Chhetri (45’) scored at the stroke of half-time. Manvir Singh (84’) and Ishan Pandita (91’) then got on the scoresheet to make it India’s biggest win under coach Igor Stimac, who has been in charge of the team since 2019.

With this win, India, 106th in the FIFA rankings, leapfrogged Hong Kong for the top position in the Group D points table with nine points. Hong Kong, ranked 147th, finished second with six points from three games.

Both India and Hong Kong had already qualified for the AFC Asian Cup 2023 heading into the fixture.

The third round of qualifiers saw 24 teams vie for the 11 spots. The sides were divided into six groups of four teams each with the eventual group winners and five best runner-ups qualifying for next year’s Asian Cup.

Group D hosts India, who went into the match placed behind Hong Kong due to an inferior goal difference, took just 56 seconds to get themselves on the scoresheet.

Anwar Ali pounced on the rebound after Ashique Kuruniyan’s shot was blocked. The young defender calmly lifted the ball over the Hong Kong goalkeeper from the centre of the box and opened the floodgates.

In the 44th minute, Jeakson Singh’s free-kick found an unmarked Sunil Chhetri, who controlled the ball well and beat the goalkeeper to his right. It was the 84th international goal for Sunil Chhetri, courtesy of which, he equalled the tally of legendary Ferenc Puskas of Hungary.

While India took a 2-0 lead into half-time, there was nothing to separate the two sides in terms of shots on goal, corners and ball possession.

Despite the rainy conditions in Kolkata, India pressed high against Hong Kong after the restart, looking for more goals. Both sides, however, looked defensively solid. In the 84th minute, Brandon Fernandes and Roshan Singh combined well to provide Manvir Singh a chance to score. Manvir Singh placed the ball to the right of the goalkeeper to make it 3-0 for India.

With the game and the top spot firmly assured, India went full throttle and kept attacking Hong Kong for the remainder of the match. Manvir Singh then turned provider for Ishan Pandita for India’s fourth goal in added time with a clean cross.

The 2023 edition will be India’s fifth appearance at the AFC Asian Cup. India have played in the continental tournament on four occasions before – 1964, 1984, 2011 and 2019. The team’s best performance was a runners-up finish on their debut campaign in 1964.

At the last edition of the AFC Asian Cup in 2019, India made a promising start but narrowly missed out on a knockout phase spot after conceding a late penalty in their final group game against Bahrain.

Australia’s win over Peru in the intercontinental playoffs this week guaranteed an unprecedented six teams from the Asian confederation at the World Cup, giving the continent an opportunity to repeat the success of 2002 when it first staged soccer’s marquee event.

South Korea reached the semifinals and Japan made it to the Round of 16 when they co-hosted the tournament in 2002, but Asia has under-performed in every edition since.

In the first World Cup in the Middle East, Europe, with 13, will be the only continent with more teams represented.

Qatar’s hosting of the Nov. 21-Dec. 18 tournament has added to Asia’s usual automatic four qualification spots filled by Saudi Arabia, Japan, Iran and South Korea.

“This is indeed Asia’s time and there is no better way to underline this celebration than with the qualification of a record six teams at the FIFA World Cup for the first time in our history,” Asian Football Confederation president Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa said. He’s hoping 2022 will show a marked improvement from Asia’s performance in 2018.

With just over five months to go, signs are mixed.

Japan was shaping up as the best hope. A narrow 1-0 loss at home to Brazil on June 6 was sandwiched between 4-1 victories over Paraguay and Ghana. On Tuesday, however, Hajime Moriyasu’s men lost 3-0 at home to Tunisia.

“The result was disappointing,” Moriyasu said, but he added that the friendlies had given him an opportunity to try different formations. “This will help in the future and I will use this as a springboard to improve.”

Japan starts and ends Group E against Germany and Spain with the middle game against Costa Rica, which edged New Zealand on Tuesday for the last of the 32 spots in the draw for Qatar.

Saudi Arabia finished above Japan and Australia in qualifying but lost earlier this month to Colombia and Venezuela, two teams that did not qualify from South America. It leaves Saudi Arabia’s opening Group C game against Argentina looking ominous.

“The players are tired after a long season and the coach (Herve Renard) has been trying different strategies and we hope to get the benefit from that,” Saudi Arabia’s federation president Yasser Al-Mishael said. The Saudis plan to have six or seven more friendlies. “September’s training camp will be focused on correcting mistakes and preparing for the World Cup.”

Iran has to face England, the United States and Wales in Group B, but the team’s only game since securing qualification was Algeria in Doha on Monday and ended in a 2-1 defeat. The team from Qatar, which has never appeared at the World Cup before, has not seen much international action at all.

The Australians have been up and down. After winning 11 straight qualifying games in the second round and start of the third round of Asian qualifying, the Socceroos registered just one victory in seven games to finish third in their group.

The Socceroos beat United Arab Emirates 2-1 in an Asian playoff last week. Six days later at the same stadium in Qatar on Monday, the Socceroos qualified for a fifth straight World Cup after edging Peru, the fifth-place team in South America, 5-4 on penalties.

The reward is a place in Group D and games against defending champion France, Tunisia and Denmark.

South Korea, appearing at a 10th successive World Cup, started its buildup with a heavy 5-1 loss to Brazil in Seoul on June 2. Results improved as the Taeguk Warriors beat Chile 2-0, drew 2-2 with Paraguay and then defeated Egypt 4-1.

The South Koreans, who beat Poland, Portugal, Italy and Spain on a remarkable run to the semifinals at home in 2002, will be playing in Group H against Uruguay, Portugal and Ghana in Qatar.

“The biggest positive to take is how the players reacted against Chile after the defeat against Brazil and how they fought back from 2-0 down against Paraguay,” South Korea coach Paulo Bento said. “We still have work to do.”

FIFA has made it official when it announced the 16 host cities for world football’s most prestigious men’s tournament’s return to North America for the first time since 1994.

Co-hosting the tournament with the United States and Mexico, BMO Field and BC Place will be the sites of the first men’s World Cup games played on Canadian soil. The 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup was held in Canada with the final played in Vancouver.

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