Indian football team will look to shake off any rust and continue their winning momentum against Mauritius in the opening game of the tri-nation series in Mumbai on Saturday. The tournament also features Caribbean side St. Kitts & Nevis. Apart from the possibility of adding a silverware, coach Stephen Constantine's main concern would be to get his players in shape before their AFC Asian Cup qualifier against Macau on 5 September.
India's last competitive match was against Kyrgyz Republic over two months ago, when Sunil Chhetri scored a sensational winner to send India top of their AFC Asian Cup qualifying group. So the Englishman will be desperate to use this short tournament to prime his troops for the crucial battle in the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.
"People forget that we have not played since June, and we need more than 2-3 days to get into the scheme of things and understand each other. I'm just happy we have got two opponents that can give us different problems and an opportunity for us to get acquainted with each other," Constantine told reporters in Mumbai ahead of the game.
The home side will be without captain Chhetri, goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Udanta Singh for the tournament as the trio will be in action for Bengaluru FC in AFC Cup. Thus, it will give the English coach a chance to some of the fringe players and test his side's bench strength.
But the 54-year-old is wary of the threat their opponents pose.
"Giving opportunities to youngsters is important. But we are not going to disrespect or underestimate the quality of two teams, who are here. I know Mauritius. They lost just 0-2 to Ghana at home recently and you don't just lose 0-2 to Ghana unless you are doing something right. St Kitts, they are not Jamaica, but they play similar style and have similar sort of philosophy. It will be something new for us playing against these teams with different cultures," Constantine said.
While the coach admitted it wasn't the ideal preparation for the Macau game, matches against teams from outside Asia would help them develop as a team.
"My initial plan was to play one game, close to (the game against) Macau, against Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei who play similar style. (But) when the opportunity came to play two games, that gives me more time, it also gives me more opportunities to try new players, so we wanted one team from Africa, one team from Carribean, one team from Asia to make it a four team tournament, But what we have got now is good enough." Constantine stated.
"(If) we want to compete at the top level, we need to be able to play teams from different continents instead of just playing Asian teams. We are going to get a real test. We are playing an African team, we are going to play a team from South America," he added.
The Indian squad has 10 players from the U-23 team, and Constantine stressed the importance of blooding youngsters in order to keep the roaster fresh. After announcing Sandesh Jhingan as the captain for the match, the 54-year-old cited his case as a strong reason to expose young talents to the highest level.
"I have given more than 100 international debuts to players in my career. I believe that they have something to offer, and when they show that they have nothing to offer, they are gone. Sandesh was one such young boys and now he is captain for Saturday's game," the coach said.
However, it will be interesting to see how many players will make their debut against Mauritius on Saturday with seasoned members like Robin Singh, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Eugenson Lyngdoh all struggling for form, and more importantly match fitness.
India are expected to go with the same back four of Narayan Das, Jhingan, Anas Edathodika, and Pritam Kotal that's helped them to back-to-back clean sheets in the last two games, but Mumbai City FC goalkeeper Amrinder Singh is expected to deputise for Sandhu in goal.
Rowlin Borges and Lyngdoh are likely to keep their places in the center of the park, with Jackichand Singh and Holicharan Narzary flanking the duo. Robin and Jeje will start the match in most probability with rotation in all areas of the field expected if India find themselves in a comfortable position in the game.
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India will go into the game on the back of an eight-game winning streak much in contrast to the visitors who are winless in six, and have just one victory in their last ten matches. However, featuring players who ply their trade in French leagues, with a few more in England, might carry more threat than what their form and a FIFA ranking of 160 might suggest.
With a new boss Francisco Filho " a youth coach at Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson " at the helm, the tiny African nation will hope to see a change in fortunes for its football team who have struggled to break among the African elite.
The men who will hold the key for the visitors will be the Bru brothers, who have played for the junior French national teams in the past. Kevin Bru, who's the younger among the two, plays for Ipswich Town in England's Championship division, while Jonathan is a part of French fourth division team AS Poissy. Apart from the duo, the side has several young players playing in Europe, who according to coach Filho are waiting to burst onto the scene.
"I have got Jonathan from Toulouse while Kevin Bru plays for Ipswich Town. Apart from these two guys, a few more play in Europe. Overall, there's a perfect blend of experienced boys with youngsters who can perform at the highest level too," the Mauritius coach said ahead of the game.
"India are on a fantastic run right now and it'll be a good opportunity for us to play them right now. There are really good players in the Indian team," he added.
With no FIFA points to be awarded for this series, the result doesn't matter much. But for this youthful Indian side, with a few new faces expected to feature, continuing the winning momentum and heading into the Macau clash with confidence will be of utmost importance. View More