Eight wins out of the previous ten matches reflect an impressive run of form for the Indian football team, but the picture appears quite different if you happen to take a glance at the Fifa rankings. With a rank of 152 in the world, Indian football has faded away on the world map of the sport.
Indian football has been in transition for ages, but with the launch of the Indian Super League and the upcoming U-17 Fifa World Cup set to be staged in the country, it appears to be for real. Is the sleeping giant of football about to wake up? Puerto Rico - a team from the Caribbean that's ranked 38 places above India in the Fifa rankings – will put that belief to a stern test on Saturday evening.
It is after four years that India is facing a non-Asian team, but this fact has been overridden by the return of international football to the city of Mumbai after a 61 years. The timing of this clash couldn't have been better. With the Asian Cup Qualifiers coming up next year, India needs to find a way up in the Fifa ranking charts and the only way of doing that is by trouncing a team ranked higher than India.
For the Indian team's head coach Stephan Constantine though, it is bit more than that. "I'd rather lose 0-4 to Iran that win 5-0 against Bhutan, simply because my players learn a lot from the game against sides like Iran," the English manager said ahead of the Puerto Rico clash.
"They (Puerto Rico) have similarities with Guam. Most of their players are based in the United States. In fact they even have a team Puerto Rico FC which play in the US League. They have a number of players playing in Europe and they will be a very good side, make no mistake of that. They recently lost to USA 3-1. It's good to test ourselves against these kind of teams. And hopefully we will be able to pass the test," said the Englishman.
Constantine has maintained that he has a long-term plan for the development of Indian football and has stuck with a core group of young players who according to him can serve India really well over the next 6-7 years.
"We are trying to build a pool of players who would represent India for the next 6-7 years. In fact, we already have built a sizeable group but there will be additions, Today there is a healthy competition for each of the slots, and it's a first time that I am having such a problem. For me, it's a good problem to have," Constantine said.
India's youthfulness could come very handy against a jaded Puerto Rico side who missed their flight to Mumbai and only landed in the host city at 5 PM IST on Friday. Having reached India just 27 hours before the game, that too after a long journey would have already taken a toll on the visitors and it will be a task for Caribbean side who will be without three key men who are missing thanks to club commitments.
However Constantine refused to believe that it will have a huge bearing on the game. "They are a good side with many good players. Yeah, one may mention about their landing timing in Mumbai but you cannot take away their quality. Can you? Puerto Rico were one of the best movers in the FIFA Rankings. They are a very organised side," he said.
The Englishman also hinted at an ultra aggressive approach going into the match, "No, I am not going to change the way we play. We'll go for them. We will attack. That's the way we play. Even against Iran we tried to attack, so I am not going to change the way we play," said the 53-year-old coach.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu to sport the captain's armband
Constantine remained tight-lipped as ever when asked about his likely eleven for Saturday, but made a rather huge call by handing the captain's armband to goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu – a player who's made a name for himself with his exploits in the Norwegian League.
Appreciating Gurpreet's efforts of not just appear for in a top European league, but also to sticking around for three years, Constantine felt there could be more Indian players who could replicate the feat.
"People often say he went out to play abroad. But I would say that he stayed out there and continued. And in a country like Norway it's not easy at all and this guy has been fighting it out for the last three years," he noted.
The Sandhu-led Indian team is likely to line-up in a 4-2-3-1 formation as favoured by the coach since starting his second spell at the club. Sandesh Jhingan and Arnab Mondal are expected to feature at the heart of the Indian defence, flanked by Pritam Kotal or Rino Anto on the right and Narayan Das on the left.
In central midfield, Constantine faces a slight dilemma as he has to decide between going for safe approach or attack from word go. In case he chooses to be slightly stable in the midfield, Rowlin Borges could be seen partnering Pranoy Halder in central midfield, with Eugenson Lyngdoh pushing higher up the pitch. However, in a more fluid system, Lyndoh could find himself partnering Halder in a deeper role, giving Sumit Passi a place just behind striker Jeje in the side.
Sunil Chhetri and Jackichand Singh are expected to play on the left and right wings respectively.
India will have to be careful against a technically superior Puerto Rico side who are known for their passing game. "They love to keep the ball and play it around. They are technically very good. Once they are around the box they are very dangerous. Against USA they split open the rival defence with three touches," said the Indian national coach.
It will be a big occasion for Mumbai as the the refurbished Andheri Sports Complex will host city's first football match in 61 years. The venue that's located at the heart of the city is expected to be an ideal location for the Mumbai's football loving population who reside in pockets that have a good connectivity with the venue.
Having missed out on international action for more than six decades, Mumbai will hope India will make it a memorable return for the city to international action by claiming a rare and precious win over a higher ranked non-Asian team.