The Blue Tigers will face Cambodia, Afghanistan and Hong Kong for a place in the tournament proper.

It’s now or never for Igor Stimac and Co. as they gear up for the upcoming AFC Asian Cup qualifiers 2022. The Blue Tigers are in pole position to secure a berth in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup as they are considered to be the ultimate ‘favorites.’

But can they live up to the hype and expectations around them? Recent results suggest otherwise. A few days ago, the Blue Tigers turned up to play a friendly against Jordan and were on the receiving end of a 0-2 defeat.

India is clubbed alongside Cambodia, Hong Kong, and Afghanistan in Group D. With the qualifiers knocking at the door, we a take a look at what would be India’s best starting XI for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.

Goalkeeper: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu

Gurpreet Singh Sandhu
India’s wall Gurpreet will be crucial in the Asian Cup Qualifiers (Courtesy: AIFF Media)

India’s best man under the bar is undoubtedly Igor Stimac’s most trusted lieutenant. Gurpreet has shown what he brings to the table time and again in the blue threads of India. He has been rock solid against the mightiest of forwards.

Be it against the defending Asian Champions, Qatar in 2020 and 2021, or against China in 2018, Gurpreet has done it all. And is expected to do the same come the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.

Right-back: Pritam Kotal

Pritam has mostly been a regular starter ever since the appointment of Igor Stimac. He is an experienced campaigner and has been decent on the right side of the backline.

Kotal comes into the national team set-up on the back of a highly successful ISL and AFC Cup campaign. He finished the season with zero bookings and maintained 200+ defensive contributions in the ISL.

Center-back: Anwar Ali

Anwar Ali
Ali has proved himself at the back for FC Goa this season (Courtesy: AIFF Media)

Anwar hold plenty of promise and can become one of India’s very best in the coming years. After a couple of years of health hardships, Anwar has finally found his mojo. 

Although he lacks experience, he has shown great signs of progress in the camp. He is very good with the ball at his feet and is excelling in executing passes. 

Standing at 5’10, Anwar has the capability to neutralise aerial threats. And with Jhingan alongside him he can grow leaps and bounds in the years to come.

Center-back: Sandesh Jhingan

Jhingan, 28, is considered to be India’s best defender in recent times and he has surely lived up to his tag. The ATK Mohun Bagan defender made a landmark move to Croatia’s top-flight club HNK Sibenik, but his stint was cut short due to a major injury.

He returned to India and has steadily regained his form. Although Jhingan is yet to achieve the peak of his powers, he is still one of the best in the business. He only played nine games last season, but still managed to record 30 clearances, 25 tackles, 14 interceptions, and 13 blocks for the Mariners. Moreover, his experience will surely come in handy for his young and inexperienced partner Anwar Ali.

Left-back: Subhasish Bose

Given the kind of experience Subhasish Bose has gained both for India and ATK Mohun Bagan, his selection would be a no-brainer. Bose has also been one of the most capped players under Stimac and has done a pretty good job.

He is good both defensively and offensively and therefore provides versatility on either end of the pitch. He had a very busy 2021-22 season as he racked up 94 tackles, 54 clearances, 41 blocks and 28 interceptions in 22 matches.

AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers India's best XI
India’s possible best XI for AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers

Central-midfielder: Anirudh Thapa

Anirudh Thapa is considered to be one of the best midfielders India has ever produced. The Chennaiyin FC skipper has been one of the most consistent performers in the Indian footballing scene over the last few years and has come a long way from his early days in the national team and has become much more responsible and mature.

He has a brilliant ball controlling ability and can also hold the midfield together in tough situations. Thapa has performed extremely well in pressure cooker situations and is surely an asset for any team. 

He’s excellent with his vision and ball distribution in the middle of the park. His late runs into the box and ability to test the keeper comes in as an added advantage. Despite being out with an injury in a few games, Thapa had a decent ISL campaign as he finished the season with a goal and an assist.

Central-midfielder: Suresh Singh Wangjam

Suresh Singh
Suresh has been a regular feature for India under Igor Stimac (Courtesy: AIFF Media)

The wonderkid will bring in his relentless energy and will control the middle of the park for the Blue Tigers. Suresh has been a consistent performer in the league and has therefore earned Igor Stimac’s trust.

He has been a regular under the Croat and has given good glimpses of himself. Suresh does the dirty work in the middle, wins the balls and executes progressive passes. In 16 matches last season, he pulled off 55 tackles, 15 interceptions and blocks each for the Blues.

Central-midfielder: Sahal Abdul Samad

Sahal silenced all his critics with a breakthrough 2021-22 season with his native club. After a couple of years full of criticism, Sahal pulled off his best ever season in the Indian top-flight.

He was phenomenal for the Blasters. Kerala’s golden boy scored six goals and assisted once in 21 games last season. Not just that, he also recorded 73 tackles, 38 blocks and 19 interceptions for his side. Moreover, his existing synergy with Jeakson Singh will surely be beneficial for the Blue Tigers.

Right-Winger: Manvir Singh

Manvir Singh India
Singh has rediscovered his goalscoring form playing on the right for ATKMB (Courtesy: AIFF Media)

Manvir has transformed himself into a completely new asset for the national team as well as ATKMB. Ever since his move to his new club, Manvir has discovered a newfound confidence and has improved his performance significantly.

His versatility to play anywhere across the front line will be an added advantage for the Blue Tigers. Manvir’s six goals and three assists made him the second-highest Indian goalscorer in the league in the last two seasons.

Left-Winger: Liston Colaco

Liston Colaco is probably India’s best young talent at the moment. He has done it all in the last couple of seasons and even more ever since securing a move to ATKMB. Liston’s move to Kolkata has turned out to be a blessing for him. 

He has scored bangers, wonder goals and has pulled off multiple unthinkable moments. Last season in the ISL, the 23-year-old recorded 14 goal contributions including eight goals and six assists. His swift moments, quick to react ability and exceptional dribbling skills make him even more special. 

Moreover, he’s fresh off a hat-trick against Bangladeshi giants Bashundhara Kings in the AFC Cup. Liston will surely have a big role to play for the Blue Tigers given the kind of form he is in.

Centre-forward: Sunil Chhetri

Sunil Chhetri
Talismanic forward Chhetri will once again lead the line for India (Courtesy: AIFF Media)

The man needs no introduction at all. He’s been India’s go-to man for more than a decade now and there’s nothing stopping him. Chhetri has stepped up to the occasion everytime India have found themselves in trouble.

He has scored 80 goals in 126 games for the national team and is currently the third joint-highest active international goalscorer behind Argentina and Portugal greats Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

India are over-dependent on Chhetri in front of goal and he has very well fulfilled the expectations. And if India want to secure a place in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, Chhetri will have a big say in it.

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