Navi Mumbai, Jan 19: A FIFA World Cup play-offs spot within their grasp, hosts India would seek a winning start against an under-prepared and lower-ranked Iran in their women's AFC Asian Cup campaign opener here on Thursday.
Hosting the continental showpiece for the second time after 1979, India would look to script history by qualifying for the quarterfinals of the 12-team tournament, which will see some of Asia's and world's best players in action.
India had finished runners-up twice -- in 1979 and 1983 -- and third in 1981. A win against Iran at the DY Patil Stadium will assure India of at least a third-place finish in Group A.
Besides the two top teams, two third-placed sides across the three groups will also qualify for quarterfinals. Iran are the lowest ranked team in the group which also has China and Chinese Taipei. They are ranked at 70th in the world as against India's 55th.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indian team had the luxury of a good number of exposure tours and international matches last year, including against former World Cup runners-up side Brazil. These international match experience is expected to keep Thomas Dennerby's team in good stead even though the hosts are playing without star striker Bala Devi who is recovering from a surgery.
On the other hand, debutants Iran, who began their journey in international football only in 2005, have not played any international match in the last six months. Dennerby understands the importance of Thursday's match in the home side's bid for a knock-out berth.
"Our first target is to get to quarterfinals, we have a realistic chance to do that. Anything can happen from there on," the experienced Swede said. "They (Iran) have strong defence and it's going to be a challenge for us to score. It's not going to be an easy game. We are hoping that with some creative and good passing game, we can break down their defence," he added.
"We have players who can create chances and score goals. We have to be good all through the match."
All the semifinalists will directly qualify for the 2023 FIFA World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Two more teams from the remaining four quarterfinalists will also get direct berths to the World Cup if Australia make it to the semifinals of this tournament, which is highly probable.
That means even the teams that lose in quarterfinals can directly qualify for the World Cup if they win the play-off matches of the AFC Asian Cup on February 2 and 4. The two losing quarterfinalists will feature in the Intercontinental play-offs. Iran will be playing in their maiden AFC Asian Cup after defeating Jordan in penalty shoot-out in the qualifying round.
"We have analyzed the Indian team, and are aware that they are strong and fast. Despite our lack of experience, we are motivated. We have reached this level and we we are ready," Iran head coach Maryam Irandoost said.
Besides Behnaz Taherkhani and forward Sara Ghomi, their most experienced player, 22-year-old striker Hajar Dabbaghi, will be the player to watch. For India, the experienced Aditi Chauhan is expected to don the goalkeeper's gloves while captain Ashalata Devi will marshal the deep defence.
The likes of seasoned Kamala Devi, Indumathi Kathiresan and Anju Tamang will man the midfield, while Manisha Kalyan, who scored India's lone goal against Brazil recently, can be India's trump card.
India have played just three times against Iran in the past and have won twice -- 3-1 in 2007 and 1-0 in 2019. The other match was won by Iran 4-1 in the second leg of AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers in 2007.
Eight-time champions China face Chinese Taipei in the tournament opener at Mumbai Football Arena earlier in the day. Australia captain Sam Kerr, who finished runner-up in this year's Ballon d'Or and FIFA Best Player Award, will easily be the star attraction as the Chelsea player seeks to lead her country to second title after the 2010 triumph.
India Squad (From):
Aditi Chauhan, Maibam Linthoingambi Devi, Sowmiya Narayanasamy, Dalima Chhibber, Sweety Devi Ngangbam, Ritu Rani, Loitongbam Ashalata Devi, Manisa Panna, Hemam Shilky Devi, Sanju Yadav, Yumnam Kamala Devi, Anju Tamang, Karthika Angamuthu, Nongmeithem Ratanbala Devi, Naorem Priyangka Devi, Indumathi Kathiresan, Manisha Kalyan, Grace Dangmei, Pyari Xaxa, Renu, Sumati Kumari, Sandhiya Ranganathan, Mariyammal Balamurugan.
Match live on Eurosport from 7:30pm IST.