India vs Nepal: Blue Tigers begin life in top 100 as aspirant neighbours seek inspiration
The Gorkhalis, who aren't short on talent and aspiration, would be hoping for their own Puerto Rico moment. For India, a win could put doubts over the credibility of their rise in the FIFA ranks on the back burner, at least for the time being.
India's friendly match against Nepal in Mumbai on Tuesday isn't as high stakes an encounter as some of their recent games. A match in the 2015 SAFF Cup — their last meeting — followed a two-legged tie between the neighbours in the World Cup Qualifying preliminary play-off which kicked off Indian coach Stephen Constantine's second spell in-charge of the team on a winning note.
The Blue Tigers have come a long way since and will take to the field at the Mumbai Football Arena being ranked among the top 100 nations in the world for the first time since 1996. Whether or not that's an indicator of the progress the country's made in the sport, the feat is worth celebrating.
Nothing other than a win on Tuesday will help sustain the celebratory mood, especially against a team that's ranked 69 places below them in the FIFA charts. However, India was at a similar position when they played Nepal in Constantine's first match as coach and perhaps it's fitting that the Gorkhalis play visitors at a time when India have taken the first major step in their progression under the English coach.
Despite the disparity among the two teams on paper, India haven't had it all their way against Koji Gyotoku's side. Nepal have managed to hold India on two out of the three previous occasions. A win on Tuesday will thus go a long way in gauging if their progress as a team on the pitch corresponds to their rise in the FIFA ranks.
Nepal coach Gyotoku was quick to hand their hosts the favourites tag for the game, citing India were "better in all departments", but Constantine wasn't ready to let his men get carried away by their superiority.
''Being 100 does not mean we are favourites or have become a super team or that we are ready for the World Cup," the Anglo-Cypriot coach said at the pre-match press conference.
''I don't think there are any easy teams at the international level. Every team has a different challenge. We expect a tough game from Nepal as always. Nepal are a very hardworking team. They give everything they have in every game they play.
"I know the mentality there, so we expect the usual from them, which is fight until you can't fight anymore,'' he added.
Although the match offers nothing more than playing time for both teams, a defeat would leave them in a bad frame of mind for the upcoming round of AFC Asian Cup qualifiers. India sit on top of their group with a win over Myanmar in the first game, while Nepal are at the bottom thanks to a 4-1 humbling at the hands of Philippines. Constantine's men will also be keen to extend their six-game winning streak and take the momentum to the match against Kyrgyz Republic.
India though will be without the services of their captain Sunil Chhetri, who's nursing a hamstring injury and won't be risked for this game. The injured skipper however still attracted words of praise from his coach.
"Sunil Chhetri is a very good player and has been for a very long time. I hope he has many more years. It will be a loss to Indian football if he decides to hang up his boots. I hope that's not now. I am protecting him as much as I possibly can," Constantine said.
The Bengaluru FC forward's absence will open doors for other members of the squad who've been at the fringes of the side in the recent past. In addition, injuries to CK Vineeth and Udanta Singh may further extend opportunities to the likes of Bikash Jairu, whose selection in the squad has been a subject of some debate. Constantine, who claimed that he "doesn't have a starting eleven", was hopeful that those playing against Nepal would deliver good enough performances to stake a claim for a starting place against Kyrgyz Republic, while some also start to show promise to fill Chhetri's boots when he eventually decides to retire.
"At 32, we have to start thinking what's next. Someone will have to replace him (Sunil Chhtri) in the future, but who's it? I don't know,'' said the Englishman.
Nepal will also be missing their captain Anil Gurung, albeit for reasons completely different from those responsible for Indian skipper's absence. Coach Gyotoku has dropped Gurung and left him behind in Nepal for footballing reasons. Biraj Maharjan has been handed the armband for the match.
The Gorkhalis's striker Bimal Magar, a highly-rated youngster who's already scored against India in the past, will represent the biggest threat to Constantine's men. Another Nepalese player to watch out for will be Rohit Chand who will pull the strings in the middle of the park for Gyotoku's side. However, it will be interesting to see if he starts the game at the heart of the team's 4-4-2 set-up having only arrived in India in the early hours of Monday morning.
India is expected to stick to their 4-2-3-1 formation, despite the absence of key players. Constantine would like to name the same back four that's looked assured in the last couple of matches. Sandesh Jhingan will most likely be partnered by Anas Edathodika in the center half positions, while Narayan Das and Pritam Kotal are expected to flank them.
Rowlin Borges who's flourished under Constantine's faith would most likely take up the holding midfielder's role behind the trio of Eugeneson Lyngdoh through the middle, Jackichand Singh on the right and Jairu or Holicharan Narzary on the left.
Jeje Lalpekhlua and Robin Singh are favourites to lead the Indian attack against a Nepal defence that's been leaking goals off late.
India picked up a handsome 4-1 win over Puerto Rico the last time they played at the Mumbai Football Arena in September. The win was a major catalyst for their jump in the FIFA charts, and even though a win over Nepal won't have the same impact, a repeat of the scoreline would do the Blue Tigers a world of good ahead of a tough Asian Cup qualifying campaign.
For Nepal, who are looking to emulate India's rise in FIFA rankings, gaining momentum before their Asian Cup qualifiers with a win will be the primary goal. But the young team, which is likely to include some junior players, would certainly take a lot from the game even if it ends in defeat.
"India has improved a lot and we are ardent watchers of Indian football as well. We want to learn something from them. We can learn many things from India," Nepal skipper Maharjan remarked.
The Gorkhalis, who aren't short on talent and aspiration, would be hoping the game on Tuesday proves to be their Puerto Rico moment. For India, a win could put doubts over the credibility of their rise in the FIFA ranks on the back burner, at least for the time being.
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