The last time India faced Iran in a competitive game, the Blue Tigers were beaten 3-0 by the latter in an Asian Cup qualifier in Kolkata in 1992. Today, the disparity between the two teams couldn't be any greater. India languish in the 150s of the FIFA World Rankings, and in June, earlier this year, suffered a humiliating 2-1 loss at the hands of minnows Guam in a World Cup qualifier.
Iran, on the other hand, are the highest ranked team from Asia, and possess some of the continent's best players. The West Asian nation had an underwhelming campaign in the Asian Cup in January, but have been impressive since the quarter-final exit from the continental event. In March, Iran defeated a full-strength Chile team 2-0 in a friendly in Austria. Three months later, the Chileans went on to become the champions of South America.
On Tuesday, the two teams come face-to-face once again, this time at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru in a crucial World Cup qualifier.
India come to this game on the back of an embarrassing goalless draw against Nepal at Pune last week. The Blue Tigers looked out of ideas and short of match fitness as they struggled to break down a weaker opponent during the friendly. Iran, meanwhile, thrashed Guam 6-0 in their World Cup qualifier last week. Given the strength of their opponents, and their own form at the moment, India will have a mountain to climb on Tuesday.
The Indian team has been thoroughly outplayed by Oman and Guam in its two World Cup qualifying 2nd round games, and against mighty Iran, it will be difficult to stop the rot. A failure to pull off at least a draw against Iran will virtually end India's minute hopes of qualifying for the World Cup.
All the 23 players selected by Stephen Constantine are available for the game. India's biggest concern is the lack of goals up front, with Sunil Chhetri being the team's only goalscorer in its five games this year. Against Iran, however, the priority will be to keep things tight at the back. Arnab Mondal and Sandesh Jhingan are likely to start in central defence, and will have the unenviable task of keeping in check the Iranian forwards.
CK Vineeth is likely to start on the left wing, with Francis Fernandes expected to be a surprise starter on the right flank. Stephen Constantine is also expected employ a three-men central midfield to make things tighter in the middle.
Probable starting XI: Subrata Paul (GK) Pritam Kotal, Arnab Mondal, Sandesh Jhingan, Dhanachandra Singh, Francis Fernandes, Dhanpal Ganesh, Sehnaj Singh, Eugeneson Lyngdoh, CK Vineeth and Sunil Chhetri (C).
'It's 11 versus 11'
"We all know who we are playing tomorrow. Iran are 40th in the World and the best team in Asia. The most important thing is to understand what we have trained and how we have trained," Indian head coach Stephen Constantine quipped in the press briefing on Monday, 7 September.
Constantine's counterpart Carlos Queiroz, former Real Madrid manager and ex-assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, said his side would not take the Indian team lightly. "I have great respect for India as opponents. And I don't see the FIFA Rankings as a parameter to judge. It is 11 versus 11 on the field tomorrow. Nothing less, nothing more!" he said.
Strong Iranian support expected
Bengaluru and other metros near the city are home to thousands of Iranian students and professionals; and as a result, the national team has received tremendous support in India so far. The team's practice sessions have so far been witnessed by quite a few hundred Iranians from the stands; and on Tuesday, at least 3000 fans are expected to throng the stadium to cheer on their team.
Prediction (India 0-5 Iran)
Given the stature of the opponent, India's preparations for this game have been far from ideal. The Blue Tigers had a short training camp before facing a Nepalese side in Pune on 31 August. Against arguably the best team in the continent, anything but a loss looks highly unlikely for India. However, the home team will hope to avoid a heavy defeat and keep their goal difference from plunging too low. As things stand, a comfortable win is on the cards for Iran.
Watch India vs Iran, 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying 2nd round match on Tuesday, 8 September, live on Sony Kix and Sony Six HD from 7 pm.