The Indian National Football team is gearing up to take on Iran and Turkmenistan in the last two matches of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. As things stand in group D, India are perched at the bottom with three points — four points adrift of fourth-placed Guam.
The Blue Tigers will need a minimum of four points in their last two matches to progress to the qualifying round of the 2019 Asian Cup, and will also have to hope that Oman don’t drop points to Guam at home. Anything less than that, and India will have to participate in the playoffs to book a spot in the qualifying rounds of the 2019 Asian Cup. The playoffs will involve the bottom 12 teams from across the eight groups.
Picking up a point in Tehran against Iran will be a Herculean task, and it looks increasingly likely that India will be unable to qualify directly. The matches are significant, however, as the Indian team ended 2015 on a high after winning the SAFF Championships. Coach Stephen Constantine will be hoping to carry on the momentum and pick up a win against Turkmenistan at home.
TheHardTackle looks at some talking points ahead of the upcoming two fixtures.
Absence of Robin Singh and emergence of Jeje
For all the criticism he has received, Robin Singh had emerged as an integral part of team India. The lanky striker has developed a good understanding with skipper Sunil Chhetri — aided by the fact that the duo play together at Bengaluru FC — and was in a rich vein of form before he got injured against Sri Lanka in the opening match of the SAFF Championships.
His physicality was an important facet of the Indian attack and he was also seen playing on the left flank in the match against Iran. Though India are set to miss Robin, his absence will be made up to some extent by Jeje Lalpekhlua, who is the form of his life. The diminutive striker comes into the national team having scored five goals in 3 AFC Cup matches for Mohun Bagan.
Jeje has been linking well with Cornell Glen at Mohun Bagan and has been getting at the end of crosses from either wing. The striker from Mizoram has finally come of age in the last year and will undoubtedly be the man to watch out for in the upcoming matches. With Sunil Chhetri expected to play in a withdrawn role, Jeje will have to shoulder the responsibility of scoring goals for the Blue Tigers, like he did in the SAFF Championships, where he scored a brace in the semifinals and a goal in the final.
Inexperience in the midfield
Just like Robin, India are set to miss Eugeneson Lyngdoh due to an injury. The Bengaluru FC midfielder was a regular name on the team sheet whenever India played, and he dictated play with his tireless running and pin-point crosses.
In addition Eugeneson was also the set piece expert in the team and the Blue Tigers will no doubt miss his experience and calming influence in central midfield in the two crucial matches. What makes the situation worse is that none of the midfielders apart from Francis Fernandes have played more than double-digit matches for India, and this could prove to be a weakness against superior opposition.
Another worrying point for the team is that the duo of Cavin Lobo and Harmanjot Singh Khabra haven’t been regular starters for East Bengal owing to injury niggles, and Francis Fernandes has only played in the Santosh Trophy after the conclusion of the Indian Super League.
The same holds true for Seityasen Singh, who has struggled to find a starting spot for Salgaocar. Malsawmzuala, Udanta Singh, Mohammed Rafique and Vineet Rai, on the other hand, are yet to make their debut for India. One wonders why Constantine chose not to pick Mehtab Hossain and CK Vineeth, given that both players have played influential roles for their clubs in the I League.
Encouraging team selection but doubts remain
Constantine needs to be lauded for giving a chance to Bengaluru FC duo Malsawmzuala and Udanta Singh. The JSW backed side signed Udanta from the TFA Academy and Malsawmzuala from the Elite Academy and the duo are no doubt exciting prospects for the national team in times to come. Udanata in particular impressed the fans with his performances in the SAFF games. Mohammed Rafique also has been awarded for his consistent displays for Atletico de Kolkata and East Bengal. However, it is the selection of Sumit Passi that raises several questions. The forward was guilty of missing numerous chances in the SAG games final against Nepal, which was one of the major reasons why India had to be content with a silver medal.
Despite having scored five goals in eleven games for Bengaluru FC this season, CK Vineeth was not considered by Constantine. Vineeth has been deployed by Ashley Westwood as the target man instead of the injured Robin Singh, and his height could have proved to be handy for the national team. Vineeth can also play on either flank.
Despite being on the wrong side of 30, Mehtab Hossain has been a regular starter for East Bengal and his experience could have proved useful, especially in the absence of Eugeneson Lyngdoh. Another notable absentee is Mohun Bagan’s central defender Kingshuk Debnath, who has been the best Indian central defender in the I League this season by a distance.
Kingshuk has played a key role in Mohun Bagan’s impressive wins in the AFC Cup and the I League so far, and with Sandesh Jhingan returning from injury and Augustin Fernandes not in the best of form for Salgaocar, one wonders if the coach has made the right decision by not picking up Kingshuk. Kean Lewis is another player who could have been included in the probables list, after some encouraging performances for Mohun Bagan.
Strategy against Iran
Constantine would like to end the FIFA World Cup qualification campaign with a win over Turkmenistan, and after wins over Guam and Afghanistan at home, he has every reason to believe that his team can beat the Turks at home.
But before facing them, India travel to Tehran to face Iran in what is likely to be a stern test. The Blue Tigers have been poor visitors and have been unconvincing in their three away games in the World Cup qualifiers. A big defeat could dent the team’s morale and adversely affect India’s chances in the home match against Turkmenistan.
India started with five in midfield in the home match against Iran and it remains to been seen how Constantine lines up against Carlos Queiroz’s men, as he would be hoping to avoid a big defeat.
The fans will be getting to see the Blue Tigers in action for the first time since the SAFF Championships win over Afghanistan at the start of the year, and the team will be hoping to build on that performance and deliver creditable performances in both upcoming matches.
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