The recently announced 34-man probables list has been widely criticized by fans all over the country.
As the year comes to an end, thoughts for most turn to Christmas and New Year’s, a foodies paradise and time to relax at home with family.
But for Indian football, all eyes are off the turkey and straight towards the United Arab Emirates, as the Blue Tigers look to get past the group stages of the AFC Asian Cup for the first time in 54 years. That they’ve only had two attempts since (Singapore 1984 & Qatar 2011) shows what Stephen Constantine has achieved in getting to the tournament, but his recent 34-man probable squad has received much criticism.
But, what are the key takeaways from the probables squad announced a few days ago?
5. Steady Stephen sticks with what he knows
Supporters who know anything about the Englishman’s career path will know he is a fixer-upper – a man who can make the most of a bad situation and develop as best he can sides that are under-resourced and underdeveloped.
However, that means the former Millwall assistant manager needs to be a safe pair of hands; nothing too radical or experimental, but just some solid consistency, reflected in this latest team selection.
The 34 picked are all players that Constantine has worked with regularly in the past as part of the national team and at this pivotal tournament, it’s only logical that the boss would stick with the same group, particularly spending potentially so much time together over the next few weeks.
Watch: Sunil Chhetri has been the backbone of the Indian team for a long time
4. Some players can count themselves unlucky
But try explaining that logic to current Indian Super League Player of the Month Rahul Bheke, or Michael Soosairaj, who is reportedly back training with Jamshedpur, but wasn’t even given an opportunity to get into the squad for the friendly against Jordan, having banged in three goals in the previous two games.
The list goes on: Seiminlen Doungel, Thoi Singh and Jobby Justin; the talented forward scoring five in seven in a chronically under-represented I-League – including again in Sunday’s Kolkata Derby.
3. Some can thank their lucky stars
It seems like the only thing more difficult than working your way into an Indian national team squad is to lose your place.
Sumeet Passi’s constant selection is beginning to get silly at this stage, particularly given the wealth of talent in his position, that will be sitting at home watching on TV and what about Balwant Singh – a single goal in 12 matches as part of an ATK attack, who is at the bottom of the ISL scoring charts?
It’s hard to know what sense there is other than an unwavering dedication to stability, but at an elite continental tournament, it takes a bit more imagination to succeed.
2. Another one parks the bus
That’s the major problem with this probable side. Four goalkeepers, only six forwards and enough midfielders to make up an entire game of Kabbadi. It’s clear that the English boss is not only aware of India’s underdog status, but is defining his play around it.
Expect plenty more of what we saw against China and Jordan – gritty, uncompromising and tailored to concede as few goals as possible. The Blue Tigers will again be depending on Sunil Chhetri as the enigmatic frontman, but should India find themselves chasing a game, it’s difficult to see the squad or their manager hold the required knowledge or self-belief required to get over the line.
Constantine’s side have scored just twice in their last three games and make no mistake were absolutely battered against both China and Jordan. Indeed, if not for Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s countless saves – more than atoning for his gaffe in Amman – we could have been looking at a far more punishing reflection of the coach’s negative tactics.
1. Sunil Chhetri is back, has the reported rift been fixed?
At least the Golden Boy of Indian football is back. Despite his advancing years, Chhetri shows no sign of slowing down – physically or figuratively – bagging five goals and an assist as part of a virtually unstoppable Bengaluru FC. If India are to get anything from this tournament, he will certainly be key to it.
He’s proved himself at this level already – having been central to India’s qualification over eight years ago, the then 26-year-old scored in two of their three group stage games and was the one bright spark of an otherwise forgettable tournament.
In 2011, India conceded 13 goals and finished without a single point, with Bob Houghton handing in his resignation not long after. Constantine’s list of solid probables means we might not see the ball hit the back of the Indian net as many times, but a similar tournament for the current manager and the pressure could prove too much.
Kevin Galvin is an Irish freelance football journalist currently travelling in India, and covering the Indian Super League on his blog ISLIndependent.