AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers: Sunil Chhetri-less India face tough Kyrgyz Republic with chance to earn favourable finals draw
India will look to come out with victorious against Kyrgyz Republic primarily because this may affect their seeding just before the draw for the Asian Cup
India will start their preparation for next year's Asian Cup when they take on the Kyrgyz Republic in the final group match of their qualifying campaign at the Dolen Omurzakov Stadium in Bishkek. Stephen Constantine's men have qualified for the main tournament thanks to four wins in five matches, while their opponents Kyrgyz Republic have also made the cut with three wins, one draw and one defeat.
Last time, when the two teams met at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru, India emerged as winners after a moment of brilliance from captain Sunil Chhetri. However, Chhetri – India's highest goalscorer – will miss the match on Monday after picking up a second yellow card in India's 2-2 draw against Myanmar. So, despite the stakes being not so high, Kyrgyz Republic, ranked 115 in FIFA rankings, will be a tough test for India.
It's not like India desperately need a win but they will look to come out with three points primarily because this may affect their seeding just before the draw for the Asian Cup, which is scheduled on 4 May. An away win will significantly increase India's points in the FIFA rankings thereby helping them get a favourable pot in the draw.
If India manage to beat Kyrgyz Republic, they will end up being the 12th best Asian team and move into pot 2. Since Asian Cup is a 24-team event, countries will be placed according to their FIFA rankings in four pots of six teams. Each team from a pot will move into a group so if India can make into pot 2, then they will be slated to face one higher-ranked team in their group and two lower-ranked sides. The top two sides from each group will make it to the Round of 16 stage.
What makes the tie even more interesting is the fact that a victory for Kyrgyz Republic will put them in pot 2 so there's a lot riding for them as well.
Getting a favourable draw is important but that doesn't mean India will be assured of a place in the knockout stages of the Asian Cup. They have a long way to go even to be considered as one of Asia's heavyweights and therefore India should leave no stone unturned in preparing for the Asia Cup.
Chhetri was a huge factor in the qualifying round, scoring as many as four goals against all teams India faced. In his absence, the onus will be on Jeje Lalpekhlua and Balwant Singh to score the goals. However, it is highly unlikely that Constantine will start both the strikers. Last year, Balwant was mostly used as a second-half substitute, with his bursting runs making quite an impact. Jeje's domestic form with his Indian Super League (ISL) side Chennaiyin FC was indifferent, but he has the potential to change things around. As he showed it the second-leg of their ISL semi-final against FC Goa, where he proved to be a match-winner scoring two goals for his team.
In the midfield, Rowllin Borges will look to play the anchor role in the absence of Eugeneson Lyngdoh. Dhanpal Ganesh might feature in the defensive midfield role after having a good run with Chennaiyin this season. It will be interesting to see if Constantine will go with Udanta Singh or Halicharan Narzary on the wings. Udanta had a terrific season with Bengaluru FC but Constantine usually keeps Udanta for the second-half. It would also make sense if Constantine will play both Udanta and Narzary with the former playing on his preferred right side of the pitch. Youngster Anirudh Thapa is another option in the midfield for Constantine along with East Bengal's Mohammed Rafique and Bikash Jairu of Jamshedpur FC.
The centre-back pairing of Anas Edathodika and Sandesh Jhingan will have their task cut out against Kyrgyz Republic, who will look to dominate the proceedings in terms of attack. India will miss their first choice right-back Pritam Kotal for the match so that's an area of concern for the team. Only time will tell who Constantine will play at the right with Narayan Das set to feature on the left side. Since Chhetri will not be playing, goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu will be wearing the captain's armband. Gurpreet did not start the ISL season on a strong note but as the season progressed, he improved his form.
Kyrgyz Republic will have form and confidence on their side. They booked their place in Asian Cup with a thumping 5-1 win over Myanmar last week. Their head coach Alexander Krestinin said on Monday that his team is seeking revenge against group leaders India. "Despite playing good football, we lost in India and now we have the opportunity for a revenge in our home. We will, by no means, let the opportunity go off our hands," Krestinin said.
Anton Zemlyanukhin is Kyrgyzstan's star performer and he will look to continue his goal-scoring form when the team play India. So far, he has scored five goals in the qualifiers with a brace to his name in their last game against Myanmar. Indian defenders will have to make sure that they don't allow Zemlyanukhin to find space in the middle.
Meanwhile, during the pre-match press conference on Monday, Constantine was optimistic about his side's chances in Bishkek. "I always play to win and never to lose. When you represent the national team, you are never playing for a draw. The result might be a draw but we won’t play for a draw,” he said. With influential Chhetri missing and keeping the draw scenario in mind, it's not going to an be easy affair for India in Bishkek.
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