Winning the AFC Challenge Cup carries a huge incentive of getting a berth in the 2015 AFC Asia Cup. India would know the importance of AFC Challenge Cup as they qualified for the grandest competition in the Asian subcontinent, the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, after a time span of 27 years having won the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008 in their own backyard.
India has been drawn against Chinese Taipei, Pakistan and Turkmenistan in group B of the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers. All the squads have reached Malaysia where the group B matches are scheduled to start from coming Monday. Teams from developing and emerging nations from the Asian region have been grouped together to form four groups in total with top two teams from each group making it through to the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup.
Here we will be slicing up the Indian team by doing a SWOT analysis of the Bhangra Boys so as to figure out where they actually stand before the qualifiers. Along with the SWOT analysis, we will be predicting the finishing order of group B.
Having played in the recently concluded Asian Cup against the mighty Australians and South Koreans could turn out to be an invaluable experience for the Indian team. Out of the four Group-B teams team India is the only one who were a part of Asian Cup and that is bound to give them an added advantage over the rest of the pack.
In Subrata Pal India have arguably one of the finest shot stoppers in Asia. It was his heroics and sharp reflexes which didn’t let the shoulders of the entire team drop in spite of suffering losses against their much fancied opponents. He made sure that India came out of their group stage matches in Qatar with their heads held high. In the last 3-4 years Indian football team’s performance has improved ten folds at the international level and a lot of credit should go to this Pune FC goalie who has lead from the front.
Under Bob Houghton the men in blue have had numerous opportunities to train and have an access to some of the top notch training facilities in Portugal, Dubai etc, especially while preparing for the Asian Cup. This is bound to give them an advantage over teams like Pakistan who have not even played an international fixture for over an year now.
The defense line is the biggest worry for India. In Qatar they had their hands full as they were put against three of the top six Asian teams but on most of the occasions their defense was downright atrocious. Their inability to close in on the opposing midfielders and strikers can come to haunt them in this tournament as well. Also the backline looks highly susceptible while dealing against aerial balls and in dead ball situations. They completely depend on Pal to come to their rescue against any team who have the slightest of edge over them physically or in speed.
The fact that the squads they will be playing against in Malaysia are not going to shake the Indian backline as much as some of the Asian giants did in January but still Bob will have to keep his back four on high alert.
Bhutia isn’t out injured and although Chhetri is going but the Delhi boy isn’t fully fit yet. So the biggest question is who will score the all important goal? East Bengal’s Sushil Kumar has always failed to impress in India colors and will have to play really out of his skin to do justice to the faith which Houghton has shown in him. Indian Arrow’s’ Jeje Lalpekhlua is talented no doubt, but lacks experience at the highest level.
With top two teams from the group making the cut for the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup, getting into this group can be considered nothing less than a golden opportunity for team India. They are the highest ranked team in Group-B and are scheduled to play the 2 weaker opponents in their first two matches – which can play into their hands.
They play Turkmenistan, the 2010 Challenge Cup runner-ups in the last match on 25th but considering a woeful international form which saw them drop 21 points in FIFA ranking in last month, India would go into that match also as the favorites. Overall India has been gifted with an excellent chance to qualify for the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup and they should grab it with both the hands.
Indian team’s complacency could prove to be the biggest factory which can lead to their downfall in the qualifiers next week. They have the highest ranking in FIFA standings but three out of the four teams lie within just nine places of each other. Pakistan are considered the weakest and losing to or sharing points with them could turn out to be devastating and India should take them lightly at their own peril.
Earlier this month Indian U-23 team traveled to Myanmar to play the second leg of their Olympic qualifier and were tipped by all to come out with an easy victory. At the end they had to depend on an injury time goal to save them from the embarrassment.
Also injuries to crucial players can always play a spoil sport. Bhutia is already not there and if Chhetri couldn’t get fit on time, then scoring goals could prove out to be a really tricky affair for the men in blue.
Will the young Jeje shine or will the 20 year old Olympics qualifier hero C.S. Sabeeth will be required to repeat his heroics of Myanmar? Only time will tell the story, all we can do is cheer and support our men in blue and hope they come out with flying colors.
TheHardTackle’s Group-B Predictions
Chinese Taipei: 3rd place
They haven’t played a strong team for quite some time now and the fact that they could come out only a draw against the 170th ranked Laos in their last international encounter doesn’t look very promising for them. At best they would be fighting against Pakistan for the 3rd place in the group. Only if they come up with a superlative performance against the favorites India or Turkmenistan, they can think of making it through to the Challenge Cup; otherwise its an open and shut case.
India: 1st Place
India should top this group considering the form of the rest of the three teams in the group have been of-late, but rest assured they will not have an easy outing on the field. The Chinese Taipei players can outpace the Indian team but the wealth of international exposure that the Bhangra Boys have gathered in the past two years is expected to see them through these qualifying round. It will pretty much boil down to their match against Turkmenistan which will decide who finishes on pole position. Our money is on India as we feel that the Indian players are more accustomed to handle the pressure of big match – especially after playing against the big boys in the Asian Cup.
Pakistan: 4th Place
They are the lowest ranked team in the group and don’t expect them to come up with any heroics in Malaysia either. Remaining three teams would be looking to make the most of their encounter against them in order to improve their goal difference. Pakistan’s coach Lufti has said that they are not in the same league as the rest of the teams but they will go all out in Kuala Lumpur. He agrees that finishing a move is not their forte and it can come to haunt them in the qualifying round. Also, they really need to keep a check on set plays and on aerial balls because that is their weakest area and unless it is handled properly it would be one area which would leak out a number of goals against them.
But this tournament means a lot more to them since they are returning to competitive football after a long hiatus from international arena. The last time they played an international game was in 2009 SAFF Cup in Bangladesh, where they didn’t make it past the group stage.
Pakistan set for action after a long hiatus
Turkmenistan: 2nd place
Physically they are the strongest of the lot but desperately need to brush up on their finishing skills. They haven’t played any international match for nearly 13 months now which will not work in their favor at all. they have come out of a preparation camp in Turkey which could act as the morale booster for them. With two teams making it through the qualifying round it would be their match against Chinese Taipei which would very much decide who would make it for the 2012 edition of the AFC Challenge Cup main event as the Group-B runner-ups.