The AFC Women’s Asian Cup returns to India after a gap of 43 years. In 1979, India had reached the final and a similar showing would guarantee the country a place in the 2023 FIFA World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
The Blue Tigresses, however, are far from Asia’s best and are currently ranked 55th in the world (11th in Asia).
At the DY Patil Stadium on Thursday, the home team will begin its campaign against debutant Iran.
China and Chinese Taipei are the other two teams in the group and India coach Thomas Dennerby believes the team has a realistic chance to reach the quarterfinals.
Despite the pandemic, the Indian team has had several exposure tours over the last year and performed admirably in the pre-tournament friendlies in the UAE and Bahrain.
The team, however, suffered a blow on the eve of its opener as two players tested positive for COVID-19 and are currently in isolation at a designated medical care facility.
In the absence of Bala Devi, who is playing for Rangers in the Scottish Women’s Premier League, India will pin its hopes on Manisha Kalyan. She scored the team’s lone goal against Brazil in a friendly recently.
The experienced Aditi Chauhan will guard the goal, with captain Ashalata Devi spearheading the defence.
With seasoned campaigners Kamala Devi, Indumathi Kathiresan and Anju Tamang marshalling the midfield, India starts as the favourite against Iran, which reached its maiden AFC Asian Cup after defeating Jordan in a penalty shoot-out in the qualifying round.
Iran will bank on the skills of 22-year-old striker Hajar Dabbaghi, who had an impressive outing in the qualifiers, and experienced campaigners like Behnaz Taherkhani and striker Sara Ghomi.
With no spectators allowed, India will miss the support of fans, but familiar conditions should give the home team an edge.