In search of its first title win in the Merdeka Tournament, a confident Indian football team will look to spring a surprise on in-form host Malaysia in the opening game, here on Friday.
The Merdeka Tournament, also known as the ‘mini Asia Cup’ this year will feature only three teams — Tajikistan being the third — as strife-torn Palestine had pulled out of the event at the last minute.
In fact, the winner of the clash between India and Malaysia will take on Tajikistan in the final on October 17.
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While India’s last appearance was in the Asian Games wherein it exited from the competition in the round of 16, the Igor Stimac-coached side will have its task cut out against Malaysia in the tournament which is happening after a gap of almost a decade.
Malaysia has recorded six wins in nine matches with two draws and one defeat so far this year, signalling their impressive form.
India coach Stimac said his side is prepared for the challenge ahead of the knockout clash against Malaysia.
“We know about the good runs Malaysia have had in the past few months. They have a good coach and some wonderful homegrown players, who are very well supported by the naturalised players, so there is a lot of stability in the team at the moment,” Stimac was quoted as saying in an AIFF release.
The Indian coach conceded that Malaysia, who are expected to have a crowd support of as many as 90,000 fans in the Bukit Jalil Stadium here, have the advantage going into the contest but expressed that his side will be ready.
“I believe it’s advantage Malaysia in the first game. Obviously, they are on their home turf and have had a good run here, but we are here to spring a few surprises against them,” said Stimac.
“They have a very stable, competitive side with a clear idea about what they need to do on the pitch. We are also in a similar situation, but with 90,000 supporters and with our record away from home, which has not been that great, it’s advantage Malaysia,” Stimac said.
India has taken part in the ‘Pestabola Merdeka’ 17 times in the past and is yet to win the trophy. However, for the Indians, the tournament might just be a preparatory leg for greater challenges lined up ahead.
India will face Kuwait and Qatar next month in FIFA World Cup Qualifiers and Stimac conceded that their one eye will be on these games as well.
The Blue Tigers have been runners-up twice in the Merdeka Tournament. Their last appearance was in 2001 when they lost their matches against host Malaysia (1-2), Thailand (0-2), and Uzbekistan (1-2).