The 21 member Indian squad for twin friendlies against Philippines and Nepal saw as many as ten changes from the SAFF Cup squad with all IMG Reliance contracted players left out of the squad. Wim Koevermans also named five uncapped players in the 21 member team. With Indian team failing to qualify for the AFC Challenge Cup, the friendly matches hold a lot of importance.
Poor Result Against Non SAFF Opponents And Lack Of Goals
While India have dominated at the SAFF Championships, the team has struggled to perform against countries from outside SAFF region and has lost against teams where they were expected to win. The table on the right shows India’s results in last 10 matches against non SAFF opponents. India managed to win only three of the ten matches, two of which came against Guam (FIFA Ranking 175) and Chinese Taipei (FIFA Ranking 176) in AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers and the third win came against Syria at home in the Nehru Cup. The performance in AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers was far from satisfactory as favorites India failed to get past the host Myanmar in the last match. After the Nehru Cup triumph, things have not gone as per plan for Koevermans and going by this record the friendly against Philippines might prove to be a tough as the Azkals boast of several European based players in the team. A common point in all these losses has been the lack of concentration which has seen team India concede some silly goals.
An important point that emerges from these results is India’s lack of ability to score goals and this was evident even in the recently concluded SAFF Championship where team India scored just three goals in five matches. The last time India scored in an away match against teams ranked above it was at the start of 2012 when Oman beat India 5-1. In last fifteen matches played away from home, team India has manged to score only 10 goals with four of them coming against Guam. What is more remarkable, in last ten away matches played against opposition ranked better than India, the team has scored just 2 goals.
Among the most prominent reason for this sudden goal drought is over-reliance on Sunil Chhetri and his dip in form. For a player, often tipped to be the next face of Indian Football after Baichung Bhutia, 6 goals from 18 appearances in the last two years has been a below par performance. India’ s goal drought has coincided with Chhetri’s goal drought as is evident from the stats table. Despite Chhetri’ dip in form, Koevermans has played with a single striker upfront and with opposition defenders heavily marking the skipper, the goals have dried up. Despite the lack of goals , Koevermans’ team selection has come as a surprise as he has opted for just three strikers – Sunil Chhetri, Robin Singh and Dawson Fernandes in the 21 member team. What has been even more surprising is that both Jeje and CS Sabeeth – the two most inform Indian strikers have not found a name in the team but Robin Singh despite being used only as a substitute at Bengaluru, has found a place.
With the last 9 matches coming on the away soil, the two friendlies present an ideal opportunity for both team India and skipper Sunil Chhetri to give its fans a reason to smile and set the record straight.
Home Matches For National Team and Crowd Support
The national team always draws huge crowd irrespective of where it plays in the country and a large crowd in expected to throng the Kanchenjunga Stadium in Siliguri which is the venue of these matches. The Federation Cup 2012 was held in Siliguri and this is a indeed a good move by AIFF to allot the matches to Siliguri in a bid to encourage the game in the North-East. The national team is playing in India for the first time since February when they lost 2-4 to Palestine in Kerala and he two friendlies are expected to widely covered by the media as well.
2013 has not been a good year for the national team and the two home matches offer a perfect opportunity for the team to end the year on a high. AIFF has often come under the criticism for not arranging enough friendly matches for the national team and it is imperative that the team makes most of these two matches. Koevermans has been criticized for sticking to a same set of players and the two friendlies are a perfect opportunity to experiment.
Can New Players Make A Mark
With IMG Reliance contracted players being left out of the squad by chief coach Wim Koevermans, the two friendlies are an excellent opportunity for some of the top I-League performers to cement their place in the national team. The most prominent among them is Lalrindika Ralte who despite being part of the national team setup for almost 1.5 years has not been given a fair chance by Koevermans. The East Bengal youngster comes into the camp in a rich vein of form having impressed in the AFC Cup semifinal against Kuwait SC. CK Vineeth returns to the team after making his debut against Palestine and the United SC player has been one of the best Indian players in I-League. Vineeth can play on either wings and also as a striker. Sporting duo of Victorino Fernandes and Dawson Fernandes have been rewarded for their consistent performances with the Goan club.
Nicolau Colaco of Salgaocar has been called to the camp after an impressive current and last season at club level. His coordination with Francis Fernandes, who was India’s best player of SAFF Cup , has fetched Salgaocar a lot of goals and with Nirmal Chhetri not part of the squad, Colaco has an opportunity to cement his place. Aibor Khongjee was arguably Mohun Bagan ‘s best player last season and he has been deservedly called up for the national team. With Gouramangi not part of the team, Aibor could be given a chance in the heart of Indian defense. Former Arrows player Narayan Das , now with Dempo, has also earned a maiden call-up to the team.
Weakened Central Defense
Despite calling up several new players for the national, Koevermans’ s selection policy once again came under the scanner as he overlooked Pune FC skipper Anas Edathodika and Dharmaraj Ravanan of Churchill Brothers yet again. Defense has been a cause of concern for team India, specially when they are playing against non SAFF opponents. As the table above showed in the last ten matches against non SAFF opponents India has conceded 20 goals and kept just 1 clean sheet – a stat certainly no encouraging. With Gouramangi Singh and Syed Rahim Nabi not part of the team, Indian defense looks weak with Raju Gaikwad the most capped Indian defender with 17 caps. Gouramangi and Nabi had been the pillars of Indian defense having played over 50 matches each. With the two veterans not part of the team, it was all the more important for Koevermans to select Anas and Ravanan, especially given that fact Raju Gaikwad has mostly warmed the bench at East Bengal. What is even more surprising is that Koevermans has selected just two central defenders in his squad of 21.
Will Sunil Chhetri finally deliver a good performance? Will new players stand up and make most of this opportunity or will Koevermans tinker with his favorite formations ? All eyes will be on the national team when they take the field in the two friendlies.