Hosts India will open their Hero Intercontinental Football Cup campaign with a first-ever meeting against Mongolia here at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar on Friday as head coach Igor Stimac exuded confidence that his team will win the tournament.
The third edition of the Hero Intercontinental Cup will kick off with a clash between Lebanon and Vanuatu earlier in the day at the same venue.
India won the inaugural tournament in 2018 in Mumbai, defeating Kenya 2-0 in the final, while DPR Korea beat Tajikistan in the last edition in Ahmedabad in 2019.
The Blue Tigers are all geared up to lift the trophy once again, and head coach Igor Stimac reiterated that during the pre-tournament press conference on Thursday. “We’re expecting to win the tournament, and that’s why we’re here. We’ll do everything possible to make that happen.”
The big target for India is the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar in seven months’ time, and with the Blue Tigers set to play several matches until the end of this year, Stimac believes every minute of every game will count for the team’s preparations.
“Although our opponents (in the Hero Intercontinental Cup) are not as tough as the teams we’ll face in the Asian Cup, they’re still good and competitive. Mongolia are a very aggressive side with a lot of young players in midfield and upfront. They press high press and play counter-attacking football. Even though they may find it difficult to adapt to the warm weather here, their players are arriving in competitive form as the Mongolian league is going on at the moment,” said Stimac, sharing his thoughts on India’s East Asian opponents.
India have been in camp in Bhubaneswar since May 15, giving Stimac plenty of time to make a strong assessment of his squad. The team could potentially play as many as nine matches in less than a month, with the SAFF Championship also beginning on June 21 in Bengaluru.
“Each game will be a challenge for us. We’ve had enough time for preparation. We need to be physically ready for these games and take everything into our hands. Our players are here to prove that they deserve their place in the National Team,” said Stimac.
“Playing at home will be a big advantage for us. I hope to see a large number of supporters cheering for us. We saw in Manipur that when we’re surrounded by passionate fans who shower us with love, they can help us beat better-ranked teams,” the Croatian added.
Blue Tigers captain Sunil Chhetri opined “Me and the boys are very excited. It’s strange that we’ve never played in Bhubaneswar or anywhere in Odisha before in my career, so we’re really happy to be here. Everything from our hospitality to training pitches has been top-notch, and we’ve made good use of the three weeks here. Hopefully, we don’t have just three games here but four (including the final),” said the skipper.
Mongolia, ranked 183 in the FIFA Rankings, head into the Hero Intercontinental Cup without much expectations but with no shortage of motivation. Their Japanese head coach Ichiro Otsuka shared his thoughts on what he and his side look to gain from the tournament.
“All the other three teams are ranked higher than us. But we will fight and try to have better games against them. We’re very motivated to showcase our football here,” he said.
In their previous friendly game against 77-ranked Georgia in March, Mongolia put in a good defensive show, holding the hosts at 1-1 until half-time before eventually losing 1-6. Against India, Otsuka expects his side to be put to a rigorous test again.
“Compared to us, the Indian team is very strong. Later this year, we’ll have our first round of the World Cup Qualifiers, where we will face higher-ranked teams. So, we want to concentrate on defending first. But, of course, we also have some ideas going forward,” said the Japanese.
The warm Odisha weather is another big challenge the Mongolia side will be dealing with. “There’s a huge difference between the weather conditions in Mongolia and India. It was snowing back there a few days ago, but it’s so hot and humid here. But we will do our best because it is a good opportunity to test ourselves against higher-ranked opponents,” said Otsuka.