Only seven players in India's travelling contingent of 26 have played every minute of their clubs' domestic campaigns. Between them, the squad has scored just five goals after the first four rounds of the Indian Super League. And when the team lines up against Afghanistan tonight, they might be without a regular central defensive pair.
Much has been made about the conditions that welcomed India in Dushanbe — the chilly weather, artificial turf, convoluted flight paths, et al. But it will be the on-field problems that will trouble coach Igor Stimac more ahead of two crucial 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup joint qualifying matches, against a tricky Afghanistan on Thursday followed by a much superior Oman next Tuesday.
Some, like the lack of goals, are old issues that resurface in newer ways. But it is the defence line that will concern Stimac going into the doubleheader.
Most of India's recent performances — the two wins over Thailand, the draw in Qatar, etc — have come on the back of a solid defensive performance. Heading into the Afghanistan match, however, one wonders if Stimac himself is sure of the back four that will start on Thursday.
Sandesh Jhingan, who leads the defence line, has been ruled out for at least five more months after twisting his knee and rupturing the Anterior Cruciate Ligament during India's practice game against NorthEast United before the Bangladesh match in October. On Tuesday, Anas Edathodika returned home due to a family bereavement.
Adil Khan, whose late goal saved India from an embarrassing defeat at home to Bangladesh, is reported to have a tight hamstring. Although he is not ruled out yet, Stimac has a tough decision to make – should Khan be risked against Afghanistan in cold conditions on an artificial turf, which can aggravate the injury, or save him for the match against Oman?
The only central defender who is available and match-fit is Narender Gahlot. The 18-year-old made his international debut earlier this year but has not played a single minute for Jamshedpur FC. It is likely Stimac will opt for either right-back Rahul Bheke or left-back Subhashish Bose in a central position, which will open the door for the likes of Pritam Kotal and Sarthak Golui to make the starting XI.
The midfield might not pose such selection issues for Stimac, but the form of a few will concern him. Udanta Singh's pace on the right has set up several counterattacks and goal-scoring moves for club and country. The winger also has a tendency to get into scoring positions himself but lack of composure inside the box has been a repeated letdown.
Bangladesh choked India's young midfield and made them irrelevant with some smart tactical play to which India had no counter. Afghanistan, who prefer a 4-5-1 formation or a variation of it, are expected to do the same. Stimac has argued that the 510 passes India made against Bangladesh, along with the 17 attempts on goal, show they were the better side who just had an off day. But the conversion rate has been abysmal for quite some time now, and there seems to be no solution in sight.
Farukh Choudhary and Manvir Singh - the two recognised strikers apart from Sunil Chhetri - have not set the ISL on fire. Manvir, in fact, has struggled to get playing time in a star-studded FC Goa forward line. The onus to score, or create, goals will thus be on Chhetri once again.
Perhaps, Stimac had foreseen these problems when he asked for extra training time with the team ahead of the twin ties. Last month, the Croat wished that at least one round of the ISL be postponed so that he gets more time with the players in a conditioning camp before the crucial matches against Afghanistan and Oman.
He was cut down to size immediately, when an unnamed ISL official reportedly called Stimac's comment 'unfortunate' and his approach 'unprofessional.' “... it was discussed and agreed upon that since the ISL schedule is out and a lot of planning goes into the whole process of organising games like broadcasting, booking of stadiums and lodging of players, it is not possible to give a longer break before the November games and FIFA rules will be followed,” the official was quoted as saying by IANS.
Since then, Stimac has not reiterated his demand. The next two matches will show how much the injuries, lack of playing time and – from the coach's point of view – inadequate preparation will impact India, who are still searching for their first win of the qualifiers.
Uphill task: Stimac
PTI adds: Searching for their first win of the campaign, India coach Igor Stimac said the situation his team is in, that it cannot afford to slip at any cost.
“It will not come to us, rather we need to go and snatch it. It’s always about us and our performance to achieve something,” the Croatian said on the eve of the Pool E 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup joint qualifier against Afghanistan. “We see Afghanistan as a physical side with good composure. They have some players who also have the experience of playing in Europe. They are not in the top division, but playing in Europe always gives you an extra bit of confidence. They have stamina and they’ll pose a tough challenge for us.”
The war-ravaged Afghanistan chose Dushanbe as their home venue and the match will be played on artificial turf amid freezing temperatures. This has added to the woes of Stimac whose players are not used to these playing conditions. “It’s very cold and mercury level drops to closer to sub-zero,” Stimac said. “Moreover, the match is scheduled on an artificial turf which our players are not used to. Afghanistan have chosen the venue to make others’ life difficult and we have an uphill task in front of us to overcome it,” he added.
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