India ramp up their preparations for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup with a friendly encounter against China at the Suzhou Olympic Sports Centre Stadium on Saturday.

India and China are set to meet on the football field for the first time in 21 years, as the two Asian giants go head-to-head in a friendly match in Suzhou City this weekend. The match between the two neighbouring nations promises to be a historic occasion, as it happens to be the first time ever that the Indian squad has travelled to China for a game of football.

India, under manager Stephen Constantine, have made huge strides in the recent past and are now ranked 97th in the world, from being 173rd, when the Englishman took over in 2015. The Blue Tigers qualified for the AFC Asian Cup for the first time since 1984 through the qualifiers, topping Group A in the third round, that also consisted of Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and Macau.

Last month, the Indians finished as the runners-up in the 2018 SAFF Championship, beating the likes of Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan along the way, only to be thwarted by Maldives at the final hurdle. With the Asian Cup only a matter of months away, the encounter against China allows Constantine’s men to test themselves against a higher quality opposition.

China, ranked 76th in the world, failed to qualify for the summer’s FIFA World Cup and come into Saturday’s game on the back of a couple of disappointing results last month – a 1-0 defeat to an inexperienced Qatar team, which was followed by a goalless draw against Bahrain.

Led by Italian World Cup winning head coach Marcello Lippi, Team Dragon will be hoping to returning to winning ways and build some valuable momentum ahead of January’s Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates.

Team News & Tactics

China PR

First-team regulars Zhang Linpeng and Piao Cheng had to pull out of the squad for the matches against India and Syria due to injuries. Talented young players Deng Hanwen, Fan Xiaodong and Zhang Xiuwei have been drafted into the roster.

There is a good mix of youth and experience within the Chinese squad and the overall quality of the team has risen in recent years, thanks to the number of world-class foreign imports in the Chinese Super League, which has led to the growth and improvement of domestic talent as well.

Team Dragon are likely to set out in a 4-3-3 formation for the weekend’s encounter in Suzhou, with the 27-year-old Yan Junling starting between the sticks. Feng Xiaoting will start in the heart of the defence and is likely to be partnered up with Yu Yang, while Yu Hai and Wang Tong are expected to start as the full-backs on the left and right sides respectively.

Guangzhou Evergrande captain and the most capped player in the current squad for China with 102 appearances, Zheng Zhi will anchor the midfield against India. Jin Jingdao, who has scored eight goals and set up five more in 29 appearances for his club Shandong Luneng this season, will be tasked with providing the forward thrust from the middle, along with the 29-year-old Wu Xi.

25-year-old Wu Lei has been in scintillating form for SIPG, banging in 25 goals and setting up 11 more in just 36 matches. He will be China PR’s threat in the final third, starting out on the left flank. On the opposite wing, it will be Yu Dabao, who has 17 international goals to his name. Spearheading the attack will be 100-game veteran Gao Lin.

Probable Starting XI (4-3-3): Yan, Wang Tong, Yu Yang, Feng, Yu Hai; Wu Xi, Zheng, Jin; Dabao, Gao Lin, Wu Lei; 

India

Balwant Singh has been dropped from the 22-man squad named by Constantine, owing to passport issues, while the likes of Manvir Singh, Germanpreet Singh and Souvik Chakraborti have also been axed by the manager, along with young goalkeeper Vishal Kaith.

Indian captain Sunil Chhetri and Pritam Kotal are back in the squad after sitting out of the SAFF Championship last month. Manager Constantine is likely to revert to a 4-2-3-1 setup, as India look for their first ever victory against their neighbours this weekend.

Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is set to start under the crossbar for the Blue Tigers and will be protected by a back four comprising of Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika at the centre, flanked by the returning Kotal on the right side and Subhasish Bose on the left.

The 26-year-old Rowllin Borges has been in fine form in the Indian Super League for NorthEast United FC and should find himself starting as one of the two central midfielders. Occupying the second pivot position against the Chinese will be Pronay Halder, who has the ability to impact proceedings in both halves of the pitch.

Udanta Singh will offer the width in the final third from the right flank, while Kerala Blasters’ 24-year-old attacker Halicharan Narzary will slot in on the left wing for the visitors. Chhetri will slot in the hole behind the main striker and look to pose problems for the Chinese, with Jeje Lalpekhlua expected to lead the line.

Probable Starting XI (4-2-3-1): Sandhu; Kotal, Jhingan, Anas, Bose; Borges, Halder; Singh, Chhetri, Narzary; Jeje; 

Key Stats

  • India have never won a game of football against China. The two nations have contested on 17 occasions previously, with Team Dragon winning 12 of those, while the remaining five ended in draws. (h/t Sportskeeda.com)
  • The two teams are going to clash against each other after a prolonged gap of 21 years. In their previous meeting, which took place in the Nehru Cup in Kochi in 1997, China defeated India 2-1.
  • China PR have just managed to pick up two victories in their last eleven fixtures (D3, L6).
  • India, on the other hand, have won seven of their last eleven fixtures, while losing just three (D1).

Player to Watch

Sunil Chhetri (India)

India's Captain Fantastic - Sunil Chhetri (Photo by PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images)

India’s Captain Fantastic – Sunil Chhetri (Photo by PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images)

The 34-year-old Indian skipper is back in the squad after not being involved in last month’s SAFF Championship. Known as Captain Fantastic, Chhetri is currently the joint second-highest active goalscorer in international football, along with superstar Lionel Messi, with 64 goals against his name, only behind another superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Chhetri has managed a solitary goal in two appearances for Bengaluru FC in the ISL so far. Having not been involved on the international stages since he scored that brace against Kenya in June, to lead India to the Intercontinental Cup, the diminutive forward will be raring to go on Saturday, with the aim of firing his team to another historic victory.

Prediction

China PR 1-1 India

China go into Saturday’s encounter as the overwhelming favourites. However, goals have been a problem for Team Dragon in recent matches, with Lippi’s side drawing a lot of criticism for their failings in the final third of the pitch.

On the other hand, India have been in good form, but the Chinese will be a higher level of opponent in comparison to the likes of Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Maldives that they faced last month. It will be a real test of how far they have come under Constantine, with the AFC Asian Cup looming.

China’s defensive solidity and stability is likely to curtail the Indian attack, while the hosts themselves are unlikely to create a lot of opportunities in the final third. And as a result, we at The Hard Tackle expect a cagey affair in Suzhou City on Saturday, that is likely to end in a 1-1 draw.