India has a proud record in Asian games football. AIFF has taken a bold decision to send its U-23 football team for this year’s Asiad. Lets take a look at the squad.
Karanjit Singh, Laxmikant Kattimani, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu
Goal-keeping has been a weak-point for the U-23 team in AFC Challenge Cup. Arindam Bhattacharya was impregnable in SAFF Cup of 2009. He was one of the main reasons why India conceded only 2 goals in 5 matches in the tournament held in Bangladesh. His good performance attracted the attention of Bob Houghton and he soon joined the senior team. His replacements have not maintained the same standard. Kattimani had looked very shaky during the Federation Cup, while Karanjit Singh started in goal during the AFC Challenge Cup.
It is still very early to judge their goalkeeping abilities considering the fact that ‘keepers often blossom after turning 25. The most encouraging fact is that all 3 are physically imposing. Karanjit is 6’1”, Kattimani is 6’0”, while Gurpreet is 6’5”.
Denzil Franco, Abhishek Das, Robert Lalthalma, Rowilson Rodrigues, Raju Gaikwad, Inderpreet Singh, Dharmaraj Ravanan, Lalrozama Fanai
India is most likely to field a flat back-4 in a 4-4-2 formation. The first choice quartet has been playing together for quite some time now. Interestingly, these players are all set to play for the same club in the upcoming i-League – Churchill Brothers. Understanding of each other’s positioning is very important in a good defensive line, so in long term Indian football, as well as Churchill Brothers, will be benefited if the defenders continue to play together.
Left-back Denzil Franco was impressive in SAFF Cup. His overlapping runs and good link-up play with the wingers was one of the highlights of India’s campaign. He is also an expert penalty taker. Partnering him on the opposite flank will be Robert Lalthalma. Lalthalma is a quicksilver wing-back with electric pace. His defending in not up to the mark yet, as he is caught out of position at times which can hurt the team.
Dharmaraj Ravanan and Rowilson Rodriguez will marshal the heart of the defence. Still only 23, Ravanan has already played for Salgaocar, Mohun Bagan and Mahindra United, 3 former Indian Champions. His track record speaks volumes about his potential. A high level of fitness and an ability to maintain the tempo for an entire match are his best assets. Rodriguez has developed a strong partnership with Gourmangi Singh in Churchill Brothers. A graduate from SESA football Academy, Rowilson is good in air and a decent man-marker. In the SAFF final he performed brilliantly to keep Maldives hit-man Ali Ashfaq quiet.
Lalrindika Ralte, Joaquim Abranches, Jewel Raja Shaikh, Jibon Singh, Manish Mathani, Shilton D’Silva, Tirthankar Sarkar, Subodh Kumar
India U-23 team’s tactics is pretty similar to the one followed by the senior team. They focus on fluid wing movement and launching crosses towards the strikers. This system requires players who can do well on the flanks. Fortunately, India U-23 team is blessed with two such gifted players – Joaquim Abranches and Manish Mathani.
Abranches is undoubtedly the most crucial player in the U-23 set-up. He is also most experienced having represented India in every youth level. He was one of the revelations of i-League 2009/10, his consistent performances propelled Dempo to a record breaking 4th title. His toil was rewarded as he received the “Best Young Player” award in FPAI awards. He will be supported by Manish Mathani on the other wing. There were some complications before Mathani could join the squad. His club Mohun Bagan had refused to let him go initially. Mathani’s injury in SAFF Cup last year forced him out of action for a while. On his day, Manish can win matches on his own – his vision and passing ability are sublime. He also has an uncanny ability to score goals. Manish and Joaquim’s form can decide how far India goes in Asiad.
Jewel Raja and Jibon Singh is the first choice pair in central midfield. Raja played remarkably well in the SAFF Cup. He was one the star performers in SAFF Cup semi-final. He not only provided defensive cover but also played numerous passes to open up the Bangladesh defence. Coach Sukhwinder Singh uses Raja as a deep lying play-maker. The elegant play-maker is protected by Jibon Singh, who plays as defensive midfielder. Jibon and Jewel, born within 17 days of each other, have developed a good tandem in the middle of the park.
Jeje Lalpekhlua, Balwant Singh, Jagtar Singh, Malsawmfela
India’s frontline can be the main cause of their undoing in Asian games. After the departure of Sushil Singh to senior team, the junior team has found it difficult to score goals. JCT #9 Balwant Singh performed admirably in i-League 2009/10 but he hasn’t translated the same form for the National team. In India U-23’s last friendly match against Vietnam U-23, Balwant scored a goal on the 9th minute but then missed a host of chances in the game and India lost 3-1. His striker partner Je Je Lalpekhlua is not a prolific scorer either. He scored India’s opening goal in SAFF Cup but has failed to find any consistency after that. Jagatar Singh is hardly an improvement as he often misses sitters on his own.
Sukhwinder Singh is possibly the most under-rated coach in Indian football. In a career spanning over 15 years, he has won it all with JCT, including the inaugural National Football League. In late 1990s, he worked with an array of superstars like Baichung, Vijayan, Ancheri and Stephen. His brilliant man-management skills came to the forefront as he kept the team of superstars focused and captured the NFL title. In recent times ‘Sukhi’ has turned attention towards the grass-roots. JCT no longer buys superstars; instead, they focus on scouting for young talents. While they no longer challenge for titles, they have maintained their position in i-League.
Sukhwinder’s boys did brilliantly well in SAFF Cup. Houghton’s seniors had failed to win the tournament in 2008. They lost to Maldives in the final; Sukhi’s boys won it the very next year, beating the same team at the same stage. If there’s one coach capable of getting the best out of a young team, it’s Sukhwinder Singh.
It will be unfair to expect this young team to do a repeat of 1962 Asian Games. Instead this tournament should be seen as a purely transitional one. The experience gained by the youngsters could prove to be invaluable in the long run.
India will face Kuwait on November 7th at the Huadu Stadium. It will then face defending champions Qatar on November 9th, and Singapore, in their last group match, on November 11th.