AFC Asian Cup qualifiers: India's new-found zest faces stern test against confident Kyrgyz Republic
India will perhaps face their toughest test since playing Turkmenistan in the World Cup Qualifying campaign, which was their last defeat in any competition.
"We'll be very different against Kyrgyz Republic," Stephen Constantine, India's football coach, had promised after his team huffed and puffed to a 2-0 win over 10-man Nepal in Mumbai exactly a week ago.
It wasn't a performance that can exactly be called jaw-dropping, but it was good enough to get a victory on the day and thereby stretch India's winning run to seven matches.
The 'Blue Tigers' have never won eight matches in a row in the past and when they take on Kyrgyz Republic in the AFC Asian Cup qualifying round Group A encounter at the Sree Kanteerva stadium in Bengaluru, they won't just be looking to create history, but also further certify the progress made by the team in the past one year.
“It’s been a while since we have felt so positive approaching a game. Winning a game is always good for you. You’ll always feel positive when you’re winning. Puerto Rico, Nepal – trust me, not a single game was easy for us. By God’s grace, going out and winning is tough but it instills positivity within you,” Indian skipper Sunil Chhetri said at the official pre-match press conference.
“There was a tough time for us but we believed in ourselves. Now the table has turned and we’re getting results. Last day, I was happy to sit in the stands to see the boys garnering a good win against Nepal. Getting out and winning every day is tough but thankfully we’re being able to do so,” he added.
India haven't always been at the peak of their powers in recent matches but have managed to churn out results. That's a very good habit to have for any team at any level. It hasn't just helped the group grow in confidence, but also helped Constantine zero in on a settled squad.
The English coach has hailed the team's fitness levels while firing a warning at their visitors who are expected to give India a physical test.
"If it is a battle of stamina, then we can beat anybody. We are very physical and quite strong. We are a fit, hardworking team. They will be difficult to break down, they will think they can win. But we are in India and need to do everything we have to take the three points." Constantine said ahead of the match.
Unlike India, Kyrgyz Republic haven't enjoyed a winning streak of late, emerging victorious in just two of their last five matches. The 'White Falcons' though grabbed an all-important win against Macau in their AFC Asian Cup qualifying round opener that sees them sitting on top of Group A along with India.
Kyrgyz Republic have been quite solid defensively since their 2-1 loss at the hands of Philippines in September last year and have let in just one goal in the five matches since. However, as they have established defensive solidity, the 'White Falcons' have found it hard to get on the score sheet with just two goals in their last five matches.
Another statistic that will make a good reading for Indian fans is their opponents' record on the road. Kyrgyz Republic have won just two of their last 10 away matches and have found the net just five times in those matches. Three of those goals came during a 3-1 win over Bangladesh in Dhaka back in June 2015.
India, on the other hand, have scored 23 goals in their last 10 matches and go into the game having not conceded for over 200 minutes.
The numbers though don't seem to faze the Kyrgyz coach Alexander Krestinin who believes his team are the favourites to win the Group ahead of India. "We're here to get a win. We won't be satisfied with a draw. We are the favourites in the group.” the visiting coach remarked ahead of the match.
The Russian, however, spoke highly of India's recent upturn in fortunes, calling them a "tough nut to crack" on home soil.
"India are playing smart football recently. Getting good results always gives you confidence. It's the 21st century and everyone has the information about their opponent. We are well prepared for them and hope there will be a good fight tomorrow,” he added.
Constantine is expected to revert to a more familiar line-up against the 'White Falcons' after tweaking the side a bit against Nepal last week. Sunil Chhetri and Rowlin Borges who seem to have recovered from their respective injuries are in line to make the starting eleven on Tuesday. However, there was a bit of bad news with regards to forwards CK Vineeth and Udanta Singh who won't be able to play any part in the match.
Constantine will be happy to keep the same back four that has served him so well in the last three matches. Sandesh Jhingan, who opened the scoring against Nepal, and Anas Edathodika will pair up in the centre of India's defence, with Pritam Kotal and Narayan Das set to flank them.
Borges will slot back into the defensive midfielder role, while the trio of Chhetri, Eugenson Lyngdoh and Jackichand Singh are expected to line-up behind striking duo of Jeje Lalpekhlua and Robin Singh.
The 'White Falcons' who are ranked 32 places below India will line up in a 4-4-1-1 formation. Mirlan Muzraev and Vitaly Luz will pose a threat to India at the back. The hosts will particularly have to watch out for Muzraev as he is often at the heart of whatever the Kyrgyz Republic side creates.
The visitors could make two changes to the side from the one that won 1-0 against Macau – which also happens to be their last competitive match. Left back Valery Kichin isn't fit enough to start, while defender Daniel Tagoe has been left out of the squad.
In the three previous meetings between the two sides, India have won twice, while Kyrgyz Republic have been victorious on one occasion. Those games, however, came in the last decade and will have no bearing on the encounter in Bengaluru on Tuesday.
India will perhaps face their toughest test since playing Turkmenistan in the World Cup qualifying campaign, which was their last defeat in any competition. A winning run of seven matches since would put them in very good shape to overturn a confident Kyrgyz Republic side at home and take control of Group A in the AFC Asian Cup qualifying campaign.
Against a team full of players plying their trade in Europe, it will be easier said than done. The prize of winning though both on paper and psychologically is quite big. Chhetri and Co will be hoping it drives them to a victory of substantial importance.
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