FIFA World Cup Qualifiers Preview: Will the real India please stand up?
Indian football team under coach Igor Stimac have struggled for consistency despite occasional flashes of brilliance
The Indian football team is the epitome of unpredictability. One day they are holding Asia’s best football side to a draw. Another day, they are celebrating a late equaliser against a low ranked nation like it is a victory. There was nothing in common between the performances in Doha and Kolkata (barring the Viking Claps of course). And that sums up the collective feeling of everyone who has been following the Indian football team in recent years. What do we do for some consistency?
India are already on their way to Dushanbe (Tajikistan) for the first of their two World Cup Qualifiers to be held in November. They will play Afghanistan, a team ranked lower than the Blue Tigers, in Tajikistan, on November 14 after which they will travel to Oman for another qualifying match on the 19th.
Big decisions at the back
Igor Stimac has spent around five months with the Indian national team since taking over the head coach role from Stephen Constantine. But the former Croatian international is yet to strike a balance with the side, largely due to the shortage of options at the back for India. With Sandesh Jhingan out injured and young Anwar Ali going through a heart-related issue, Stimac might be once again forced to play Adil Khan and Anas Edathodika in central defence. Adil, who plays a defensive midfielder’s role at his club Hyderabad FC, is prone to an error or two, especially positioning wise, while Anas has been on the decline in the last one year. In fact, the Kerala-born defender’s presence in the squad shows how severely short the national team are in that department.
An unfancied Bangladesh side created chances in plenty against the makeshift Indian defence so expect Afghanistan and Oman to have a real go at the pair. Rahul Bheke and Subhasish Bose have been used sparingly in the role by club and country while the younger duo of Narender and Sarthak Golui are the other available options for Stimac.
Hitting on the counter
What made India a decent side in the final months of the Constantine era was its ability to kill opponents through counter-attacks. The Indian team maintained a decent shape, and used fast-paced wingers like Udanta Singh and Ashique Kuruniyan to play a counter-attacking football. This wasn’t very popular with the Indian football fans, however, who often accused the English coach of adapting a cautious, ‘boring’ brand of football that stifled the players’ creative side.
But considering how India have been prone to conceding cheap goals in the recent future Stimac might be well off opting the same approach for these pressure matches. Packing the central midfield with players such as Raynier Fernandes, Anirudh Thapa and Pronay Halder to offer good defensive protection while teaming faster, wide midfielders with Sunil Chhetri in the attack, might be the way to go for India in the upcoming qualifiers. Lenny Rodrigues’ absence from the national team is a little surprising, especially with Stimac’s plans of playing out from the back. The FC Goa midfielder has been a consistent performer in the leagues and would have a brought a different dimension to what looks likes an attack-heavy midfield. In Farukh Choudhary, they also have the standout Indian player of the season, so a 4-4-2 with Farukh partnering Chhetri up forward will also be an option for the Blue Tigers.
Despite being a better-ranked team, Oman struggled against Indian in the reverse fixture played in Guwahati, and won the match only due to two individual errors. This should give faith to the Indian team who must, however, look to iron out these mistakes in the back that have cost them badly. Nothing short of three-points will suffice for the Blue Tigers in their first match against Afghanistan if they are to remain in contention for an Asian Cup berth and the pressure will be on Stimac's men to deliver against an unfancied side playing in a foster home.
Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh, Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem
Defenders: Pritam Kotal, Nishu Kumar, Rahul Bheke, Anas Edathodika, Narender, Adil Khan, Sarthak Golui, Subhasish Bose, Mandar Rao Dessai
Midfielders: Udanta Singh, Jackichand Singh, Seiminlen Doungel, Raynier Fernandes, Vinit Rai, Sahal Abdul Samad, Pronay Halder, Anirudh Thapa, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Brandon Fernandes, Ashique Kuruniyan
Forwards: Sunil Chhetri, Manvir Singh, Farukh Choudhary