Indian footballers will return for national duty when the Indian Super League (ISL) ends as Igor Stimac’s side gears up for the AFC Asian Cup 2023.
The Blue Tigers – which have not played an international match on home soil since June 2022 – will look to utilise the FIFA International window as it hosts Myanmar and Kyrgyz Republic in a tri-national friendly tournament in Manipur this month.
“It will be great to play a few friendly matches at home again. We now have enough time to check our opponents’ form and formulate our plans accordingly,” Stimac told AIFF.
“These games should serve us well as we prepare for the Asian Cup. Hopefully, we can start the year with a few good results,” he added. “I hope all our boys will maintain good form and stay injury-free in the next few weeks until we get together.”
Khuman Lampak Stadium, which hosts I-League matches regularly and the venue for the Durand Cup matches last year, will see all three matches being played there on March 22, 24 and 26.
One of the most important factors in these games will be India’s chances to test its squad depth as the team available for the matches will be very different to the usual starting XI under Stimac.
The Croat had noted that the players in the ISL finals may be excluded from the squad for the friendlies.
“We need to appreciate those who have shown improvement in the current ISL season. The ISL finals will be played on 18 March and the players involved in the finals might not feature in the friendlies this time. We start the camp on the 14th and will have a week’s time for preparation,” Stimac said.
Only teams remain in the ISL so far, namely Bengaluru FC and ATK Mohun Bagan. With the deadline for training squad announcement set for March 14, it remains to be seen which players from the four teams will finally make the cut.
A number of first-team stars, such as captain Sunil Chhetri, Sandesh Jhingan, Pritam Kotal and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu might be rested for the three matches.
Ahead of the squad announcement, Sportstar looks at the probable XI that can feature in the matches.
Chance for young guns to rise?
Stimac, despite Kerala Blasters goalkeeper Prabhsukhan Gill winning the Golden Glove last season, had made it very clear that Gurpreet will remain India’s No. 1.
In the absence of the Bengaluru FC goalie, the 22-year-old may just have a chance to prove himself on the international level. However, he may face stiff competition from Phurba Lachenpa, who has been brilliant with Mumbai City FC, winning the League Winners’ Shield with it.
In attack, this may just be the best chance for Ishan Pandita to settle his spot as the sole striker in the national team.
Chhetri has bossed that role with consistency and finesse but the forward, at 38, may hope to see a successor soon.
After multiple injuries, Brandon Fernandes is fit and firing for Goa and was one of the most significant players for Carlos Pena’s side in the second half of the ISL season. The midfielder, now 28, is expected to pair up with Anirudh Thapa in the midfield to orchestrate attacks in the final third.