The squad has as many as six new faces and plenty of room for tactical maneuvering.
India are in Thailand to take part in the King’s Cup that will see the Blue Tigers face Curacao, the hosts and Vietnam in a four-team tournament. India will face Curacao in the first game on Wednesday and with new coach Igor Stimac at the wheel, a lot of fans are keeping their eyes on the tournament’s opener.
India last played an international game against Bahrain at the AFC Asian Cup 2019 and conceded in the penultimate minutes to go out of the continental showpiece. India had showed a lot of promise in their 4-1 win against Thailand, co-incidentally this tournament’s hosts and were revered in several quarters, only to end the tournament on a sad note.
Watch: Indian football team in final training session before leaving for Thailand
Before we get into the nitty-gritties of the tournament, let us just analyze the squad that the former Croatia head coach has picked and some inferences that we can clearly derive from the 23 men that will fight for the national jersey.
5. Youngsters are the way forward
It has taken Amarjit Singh Kiyam, an 18-year-old creamy-passing midfielder, just two years to be part of a FIFA U-17 World Cup, two I-league seasons and now, win a national team call-up. This would never have happened had Stimac’s predecessor, Stephen Constantine, been in the hot seat.
With Sahal Abdul Samad, Vinit Rai and Lallianzuala Chhangte also taking the flight, it surely indicates that the trio aren’t mere spot-fillers, but will have roles to play when the right time arrives. The tactician still hasn’t played his cards, so guessing his starting XI will be a difficult proposition, but the selection certainly shows that quality, and not age, matters to the man.
4. Clarity in defensive choices
When Stimac announced his final squad for the tournament, one thing rang loud and clear – the man knows his defensive players. There are just five names on the list – Pritam Kotal, Rahul Bheke, Sandesh Jhingan, Adil Khan and Subhashish Bose. Interestingly, Bheke and Khan were time and again ignored by Constantine in the past, even after putting in solid performances for their respective clubs.
Stimac has styled most of his teams with four-at-the-back and it remains to be seen how he approaches the new job. There’s not enough cover in the defensive area and the manager certainly expects his defenders to play beyond just one role when the need arises. Will we see the purge of clearing or hitting them long, or will the pair of Bheke and Khan play it forward?
Watch: Michael Soosairaj is confident ahead of the King’s Cup
3. Midfield is the key
For most of the last four summers, the Indian football team had a midfield that used to be a second line of defence for much of the game. Pronay Halder and Rowlin Borges, both defensive midfielders, played most games and were helped by the resolute creativity and hard work of forward Sunil Chhetri, who dropped deep time and again to play the medium.
This though, looks likely to change. With interesting names like Sahal Abdul Samad, Amarjit, Brandon Fernandes and Michael Soosairaj in the mix, India have enough passers of the ball in midfield. He will also have a second option, with Soosairaj and Brandon being very different from the kind of players Sahal and Anirudh Thapa are. This will help India’s options and chances against opposition like Thailand and Vietnam.
Watch: Sunil Chhetri speaks to media before team’s departure to Thailand
2. Youngsters and seniors will be on the same pedestal
It’s clear from the selections that a newcomer in Bheke is being treated equally to a Sandesh Jhingan and these newcomers, six of them in total, will have roles to play. Amarjit might not find minutes on the trip, but it will still be a massive learning curve for the Indian Arrows captain. In the absence of experienced striker Jeje Lalpekhlua, Farukh Choudhary and Manvir Singh will vie for the striker’s role against Balwant Singh and that’s what will bring a higher level of commitment in the team.
A fresh slate for everyone to write their scripts on is always a good thing and provides a level-playing field. Stimac has already suggested that players like Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu will have to fight for their spot in the team. That brings a different kind of excitement for youngsters, who love that extra room, extra window of opportunity to vie for their spots against other experienced campaigners.
Watch: Rahul Bheke says he is ready to relocate if Stimac commands it
1. The exclusion of Jobby Justin
East Bengal’s new poster-boy Jobby Justin had made headlines when he was picked by the new coach for the national team camp. Justin’s ability was further discussed when he cleared the first phase of exclusions and was expected to take the team bus, but the wait will have to be a little longer. The drop, though, asks some questions.
Excluding Chhetri, no other striker among Balwant, Manvir and Chaudhary have the number of goals Justin has scored last season and thus, will be low on confidence. It will be a challenge, certainly, because football is a sport of rhythm and the first property for a striker should be to be in the right sort of goalscoring rhythm. The off-season may have brittled the youngster, but the performances of Manvir and Chaudhary will certainly be scrutinized during the tournament.