Bhubaneswar, June 8 (IANS) A day ahead of their Intercontinental Cup 2023 campaign opener against Mongolia, India senior men's national football team coach Igor Stimac on Thursday said that they are expecting to win the tournament and will do everything possible to make that happen.
The third edition of the Intercontinental Cup will kick off with a clash between Lebanon and Vanuatu at 16:30 IST on Friday at the Kalinga Stadium, here. Later in the day, India will have their first-ever meeting against Mongolia.
Hosts 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.
"We're expecting to win the tournament, and that's why we're here. We'll do everything possible to make that happen," said Stimac in the pre-tournament press conference on Thursday.
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 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," the Croatian was quoted as saying in an AIFF media release.
"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," he added.
Meanwhile, Blue Tigers captain Sunil Chhetri cannot wait to wear the blue of India for the first time in Odisha.
"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)," Chhetri said.
Mongolia, ranked 183 in the FIFA Rankings, head into the 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.
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