LAST MAY, days before Germany were to begin their World Cup defence while India would slug it out against the game's minnows in an inconsequential four-nation tournament in Mumbai, Stephen Constantine made an audacious comparison. Referring to the national team's 13-match unbeaten run, the chief coach said: "Apart from Germany, there's no other team in that sort of form as us."
As most things in Indian football, Constantine's remarks were over-the-top and bizarre. But more than creating hype about his team, his words were borne out of frustration. Under the Englishman, the national team had made an unprecedented march up the world rankings, climbing from 173 in 2015 to 97 back then - a position they've held on to even now. But few were talking about it or giving him, and the players, due credit. Instead, his selections were constantly being questioned. The style he'd adopted was getting ridiculed. And reports of his deteriorating relationship with several players, including skipper Sunil Chhetri, refused to die down. These issues have surfaced, and resurfaced, through his second stint that began four years ago. But every time he was pushed to the wall, Constantine - and the AIFF - have pointed at the surge in rankings, the slew of morale-boosting results and a widening player pool in the last few matches.
A test of India's ranking
The Asian Cup will be a litmus test for India, who will be keen to justify their world ranking of 97. The team has been under constant scrutiny since moving up the ladder. There have been suggestions that the surge is more because AIFF played FIFA's ranking system - which has since been changed-- rather than conventional way of playing tough opponents and beating them. Consequently, critics have claimed that despite their top-100 ranking, which places them above several countries that are technically superior. India are the second-best ranked team in Pool A, which has UAE (79), Thailand (111) and Bahrain (113). While UAE is still out of their reach, how India fare against teams like Thailand and Bahrain will be keenly observed. Thailand are one of the fastest-improving Asian nations and even though Bahrain are in a crisis of sorts, India have traditionally struggled against West Asian nations. In that sense, the next fortnight will show if India's improvement is for real.
"Who in his right mind can complain about the team or the guy who is leading it?" Constantine thundered.
Starting today, and over the next fortnight, all these claims will be put under the microscope like never before as India go toe-to-toe against the continent's best at the Asian Cup, which gets underway in UAE. But most of all, we'll know if the player pool is as talented and deep as Constantine has claimed.
In the last four years, Constantine has handed national team debuts to close to 40 players - 27 of them, in fact, have been since the final round of the Asian Cup qualifiers that began in March 2017. It has brought average age of the team - when Constantine took charge in 2015, he claims it was 'around 31-32'. Among the 24 teams at the Asian Cup, India is third-youngest, with an average age of 25. Despite the recent influx, India essentially remain a one-man team, relying heavily on Chhetri to win matches. But in their recent matches, especially against higher-ranked opponents, India have played to not lose, instead of playing to win, which makes goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu a crucial figure in Constantine's plans.
India don't exactly park the bus, but Constantine sets up his team in a fashion that makes them difficult to break down, which explains why the national team continues to overachieve despite the players being hopelessly out of form for their clubs. Conscious of the team's inability to mount meaningful attacks, India tend to defend deep in their own half, with most goals coming either from turnovers through the middle or via counterattacks.
In the midfield, Anirudh Thapa, 20, is regarded as one of the most creative players in the country. But he is still raw and getting used to the intensity of international football. It's the same with Vinit Rai (6 caps), Ashique Kuruniyan (8) and Halicharan Nazary (21), all of whom enjoy Constantine's confidence. Rowlin Borges' physical presence is more handy in a defensive role than going forward.
The only reliable attack-minded midfielder is Udanta Singh, whose speed on the wings and ability to link-up with Bengaluru FC teammate Chhetri makes him an asset. For a team like India, which relies on counterattacks, Udanta's pace - and ability to drag a player or two along with him to create space for others - will be crucial.
Spotlight on Sandhu
Since India lack the courage and creativity in the midfield, which often gets rolled over, they end up defending most of the time, putting Sandhu in the spotlight.
In 2011, the last time India played in the Asian Cup, Sandhu was an understudy to Subrata Paul. India weren't a one-man army back then, but the team was built around Baichung Bhutia - just as it is the case with Chhetri right now. Yet, it was Paul who stood out. Despite conceding 13 goals in three matches, Paul's eye-catching performances earned the moniker of Spiderman Subrata. The script this time is likely to be the same.
Owing to stellar performances for Mumbai City in the ISL, there can be an argument made to include Amrinder Singh in the starting XI ahead of Sandhu on current form. But Constantine, who hasn't shied away from trying new options, is likely to resist the temptation to experiment at the Asian Cup. In the goalless draw against China and the narrow defeat to Jordan, Sandhu was solid between the posts.
The four-man defence in front of him has been equally good in the national colours. Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika, the two centre-backs, may have endured a tough season for Kerala Blasters but their desperate, last-ditch tackles have often bailed India out. Subhashish Bose has emerged as one of the reliable left-backs. The poor form of wing-backs Pritam Kotal and Narayan Das would concern Constantine and he could be tempted to try a stop-gap solution there.
Man for man, India's squad this time is inferior to the one that played in 2011. But this team has shown it has the ability graft, play ugly and not lose. Whether that's enough at this stage, though, is a debate for another day.