July is here, and India is all set to defend the Intercontinental Cup at Ahmedabad. As a part of a four-nation tournament, Syria, DPR Korea and Tajikistan will also feature in the tournament that is slated to begin this Sunday.
Under new boss Igor Stimac, the Men in Blue are actively looking to shift from an old, long-ball style of football to one that sees them employ high press and swift passing, thus welcoming modern football tactics in what has predominantly been a conservative setting. The King’s Cup, which featured the likes of Vietnam, Thailand and Curacao, was Stimac’s first test and he came out of it in relatively flying colours, finishing third in the tournament that was held in Thailand in June.
Despite the loss to a high-flying Curacao in the opening game (who were the eventual champions), the Blue Tigers came back firmly against the hosts and beat them 1-0, thus showing their ability and commitment to the cause. The tournament also provided former Croatia coach Stimac a glimpse into what to expect from the individuals in his charge, and how to set up his team accordingly. Thus, the Intercontinental Cup would be a testament to how much he has learnt and studied about his players in the one month since.
The 35-member squad for the 2019 Hero Intercontinental Cup:
Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Vishal Kaith, Amrinder Singh, Kamaljit Singh
Defenders: Rahul Bheke, Pritam Kotal, Nishu Kumar, Anas Edathodika, Salam Ranjan Singh, Sandesh Jhingan, Adil Khan, Anwar Ali, Sarthak Golui, Narender, Subhasish Bose
Midfielders: Udanta Singh, Jackichand Singh, Nikhil Poojari, Anirudh Thapa, Raynier Fernandes, Pronay Halder, Rowllin Borges, Vinit Rai, Sahal Abdul, Amarjit Singh, Brandon Fernandes, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Mandar Rao Desai, Ashique Kuruniyan, Soosairaj Michael
Forwards: Sunil Chhetri, Balwant Singh, Jobby Justin, Farukh Choudhary, Manvir Singh
What to expect from the players and the manager?
At the King’s Cup, Stimac experimented with a 4-2-3-1 formation that sometimes turned into a 3-5-2 or a 4-3-3 depending on which phase of the field the ball was in. However, it is interesting to note that Stimac had dropped several key players from his squad for the competition, including the likes of Jobby Justin, Ashique Kuriniyan and Salam Ranjan Singh, who have all been called up for the Intercontinental Cup squad.
Having played only two official games so far, it is hard to pinpoint the exact strategy or even, the playing XI for India’s first game against Syria on 7th at the Transtadia. However, one imagines that the midfield will comprise of Sahal, Raynier and Thapa who had all been brilliant in the King’s Cup, especially against Thailand. In fact, it was Thapa’s goal that gave the team the victory.
With Sahal and Thapa in the middle of the park, one can expect Stimac to rely on quick transitions and energetic pressing to nullify the passing of the technically superior teams like Syria and DPR Korea. Moreover, Thapa’s natural goalscoring instinct, much in the module of the great Frank Lampard will no doubt be an added bonus that Stimac will be eager to cash on.
Raynier will provide the steel and grit that such a fluid midfield would need to ensure that the balance is not lost even when possession is. Soosairaj Michael did not have a good time in the King’s Cup, but he will likely feature in the midfield more often than not as well, especially against teams that do not employ a high defensive line, thus leaving a gap between midfield and the backline. It is this space that Soosairaj operates the best in, and Stimac will be hoping to procure the best out of the former Jamshedpur FC player.
On the wings, you can expect Ashique Kuruniyan and possibly Nikhil Poojari to feature. Stimac had disappointing experiences with Chhangte and Udanta down the flanks in Thailand, a position where he even had Chhetri play as a part of a wide forward experiment. However, none of that worked out well for him so it is likely that he might stick to more traditional wingers in the Intercontinental Cup.
Upfront, Sunil Chhetri should be the loneman, although he was benched for the game against Thailand. He did score from a penalty against Curacao, but he was largely left out of the game having been used on the wings and India having to defend with their tooth and nail against a sensational Curacao side.
His replacements, Manvir, Farukh and Balwant were all just as ineffective against Thailand though, with Farukh missing a one-on-one towards the end. As such, it is possible that we might see Jobby Justin make his debut for the national team, having had an outstanding season for East Bengal FC in the I-League.
At the back is where Stimac has to solve his most major issues. Both against Thailand and Curacao, the duo of Jhinghan and Bheke did not look solid and in fact, seemed to be inexplicably out of position for most parts of the game. Pritam Kotal put in a poor performance as well, so we might likely see more of Adil Khan and Salam Ranjan Singh during the tournament. Adil was in fact, India’s man of the match against Thailand, having put in a spirited performance that would made most people question why he was not a part of the national team setup for so many years despite making his debut in 2012.
We may also see Anas Edathodika in the lineup, which would explain why Stimac coaxed the former Kerala Blasters man to come out of international retirement which he had announced following the Asian Cup exit in January. Subhashish Bose or Narayan Das will make up the rest of the unit, depending on whether pace suits the team more or defensive nous.
Under the bars, Amarjit Singh is most likely to retain his place thanks to a good showing against Thailand.
For the first time since 2009, India is hosting a multi-tournament competition featuring only Asian teams. The Blue Tigers had picked up the trophy last year thanks to a 2-0 win over Kenya in the final at Mumbai, but the challenge will be steeper this time around. Both Syria and DPR Korea are ranked higher than India in FIFA rankings, but the home team has good memories of playing against Syria whom they beat in the 2009 Nehru Cup final to lift the trophy.
With the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers set to kick off in September, this will be a big test for the Blue Tigers and one in which they should throw all they have got and then some. Establishing itself as an Asian powerhouse will take time, but at least, the direction in which the Indian national football team is headed, is the right one. After all, “The Road is long but the belief is everything”.