There is a lot of noise around the Indian contingent that are in the United Arab Emirates getting ready for the opening match of what is arguably the biggest tournament any of the players have been involved in. Sunil Chhetri is the only surviving member of the team that played in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup alongwith Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who was an understudy to Subrata Paul at the time. Unfortunately for them, the noise hasn’t been positive.
They are the second best-ranked team in their group, which includes UAE (79), Thailand (118) and Bahrain (113) and almost anything they did in 2018 was seen as a warm-up for the Asian Cup. Rankings, though, can be deceiving when it comes to international tournaments and it is especially true when it comes to India. They enjoyed an unprecedented surge in the FIFA standings between June 2016 and November 2018 when they played 13 matches out of which they won 11 and drew two. But a majority of matches were friendlies or qualifiers for the Asian Cup against lower ranked opposition, none of whom are in the same class as the teams that are in India’s group.
Coach Stephen Constantine’s selection for the team has also come under the scanner. The exclusion of Bengaluru FC’s Rahul Bheke, who has enjoyed a breakthrough season this year in the ISL, and the near-complete omission of I-League players from the 34-man probables were the biggest factors that raised eyebrows. Constantine was dismissive when questioned about these decisions during the pre-departure press conference.
Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika make up the Englishman’s preferred centre-back pairing. Jhingan has not had the best of seasons with Kerala Blasters while Anas has only played five matches. Subhasish Bose, who was one of the designated captains when the Indian played the SAFF Cup, has emerged as a reliable figure in the left-back role but the right-back remains a huge question mark with Narayan Das and Pritam Kotal being far from their best in the league.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has shown through performances that he has the calibre to justify the number one role he has been entrusted with but he is prone to mistakes.
Despite deficiencies in their performances for respective clubs, India’s defence, which has involved these players in some form or the other over the past two years, has proven to be a difficult one to breach. Notably, they managed to hold China to a goalless draw despite the slew of chances that the opposition got to score. They have not conceded more than two goals in any of the matches they have played since March 2017.
Attack remains a major headache for the Indian team. 34-year-old Sunil Chhetri remains the only guaranteed source of goals up front. Jeje Lalpekhlua has not scored in any of the 11 matches that he has played in for Chennaiyin FC while the rest of India’s options – Balwant Singh, Manvir Singh, Sumeet Passi, Farukh Chaudhary – share less than 10 goals this season.
In the last 15-odd years, Thailand have surged, plummetted and come back up again. Kiatisak Senamuang was the man who oversaw the recent surge and Thailand drew eyeballs in the 2014 Suzuki Cup in which they played possession-based, expansive football and went on to win it. He resigned after heavy defeats to Saudi Arabia and Japan in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers and Milovan Rajevac replaced him.
Rajevac had first promised to address the defensive frailties that emerged during the qualifiers and The War Elephants have since abandoned their attractive style for a more pragmatic approach. This hasn’t resulted in improved scorelines and that has drawn the ire of fans. In 20 games so far, Rajevac’s side has won 8 games, lost 6 and drew the rest. In this period, they have kept nine clean sheets, shipping in only 20 goals, while scoring 31.