The Indian football team will be eager to kick-off their second international tournament under new coach Igor Stimac when they take on Tajikistan in the first match of the Intercontinental Cup on Sunday. Even though the conversations leading up to the tournament have been dominated by the internal confusion on India's 'top league' status, the spotlight will be back on the Indian footballers once they get the ball rolling on the lush green pitch at the TranStadia Arena in Ahmedabad.
The tournament will also be important for the coach and the selectors to gauge players as India prepare for the FIFA World Cup qualifiers which begin in September. Tajikistan (ranked 120), Syria (85) and DPR Korea (122) will provide good competition to the Blue Tigers (101), even though the hosts will be favourites to reach the final along with Syria.
Stimac's final team selection for the tournament was fairly predictable – lack of options upfront meant East Bengal striker Jobby Justin made it to the final list at the expense of attacking midfielder Michael Soosairaj. It was perhaps the defence that needed some restructuring after the King's Cup in Thailand and Stimac has done that by calling Anas Edathodika out of retirement and bringing in Jerry Lalrinzuala as a cover for the left-back position.
The centre-back problem
Edathodika's return to the national team, surprisingly, didn't raise many eyebrows as India are going through a centre-back crisis. At the King's Cup, Stimac tried playing Rahul Bheke alongside Sandesh Jhingan in the centre but it was clear that Bengaluru man preferred to play in the full-back/wing-back role. Adil Khan impressed in his test but one needs to still worry on how ready he is for the position, considering he played the entire season for his club as a defensive midfielder.
Stimac and India's problems run deeper though. A quick study of both the I-League and the Indian Super League reveals how most teams prefer to play foreign centre-backs. Playing time, therefore, is severely reduced for the defenders in the country, which often forces them to adopt a new role, either as a full-back or as a defensive midfielder, like Rana Gharami and Adil Khan respectively.
Contrary to popular perceptions, things aren't far better for Indian centre-backs in the I-League. Despite there being less pressure to play foreigners, teams have often employed foreign stars in central defence and forward positions, just like their counterparts in the ISL.
To understand that topic more intensely, we looked at 50 Indian defenders playing in the ISL and the I-League (players who have played as a centre-back at least at some point of their career). The numbers do not bode well for the nation's defenders with only seven (Rahul Bheke, Sandesh Jhingan, Subhasish Bose, Adil Khan, Rana Gharami, Sarthak Golui and Sahil Panwar) making the cut of 900 minutes (the equivalent of 10 full matches) from the Indian Super League.
Only 12 players from the I-League crossed the 900-minute mark, which is surprisingly low, considering both the Indian Arrows and Shillong Lajong played an all-Indian team. The I-League also had two extra matches (20) as opposed to the ISL (18 league matches + playoffs).
The stats do not show there is a dearth in the number of central defenders in the country though. The problem is the limbo the players are caught in – they are too good for the I-League and not good enough for the ISL. Many defenders who are in the ISL, such as Arnab Mondal and Pratik Chowdhari, might be good enough to start for an I-League side but are stuck on the bench in the richer and fancier ISL.
I-League's arguably best defender from the recently concluded season, Gaurav Bora (1755 minutes), has already signed for Delhi Dynamos where he will face tougher competition for places (Dynamos started with two Indian centre-backs just once in their 18 league matches this season with nine matches being played with two foreign centre-backs).
There is no quick solution to the problem. The ISL is definitely lucrative for players with better salaries and facilities. I-League teams, other than maybe the big Kolkata clubs, generate revenue through sales, and will not shy away from an opportunity to sell their stars to ISL. But the process is, unfortunately, affecting the quality of centre-backs in the country, and will be something the staff in charge of the national team will be looking at more closely.
Jobby the way forward?
East Bengal striker Jobby Justin was a surprise exclusion from the team that travelled for the King's Cup. For the Intercontinental Cup, he is a surprise inclusion. The Kerala-born striker is a polarizing figure — some expect him the be the natural successor to Sunil Chhetri while others firmly believe he is no more than a one-season-wonder. Nevertheless, with striking options looking bleak beyond Chhetri, it doesn't hurt to give Justin a chance at impressing.
He isn't a target man like Manvir Singh, but Justin certainly has an eye for goal and the footballing knowledge to time his runs to perfection. Having started as a wing-back, he is quite comfortably on the ball too, which gives Stimac an option to play both Chhetri and Justin in his preferred 4-4-2 formation.
Considering the positive result in India's last outing, one can expect Stimac to change very little. A centre-back pairing of Jhingan and Adil with Bheke and Kotal playing full-backs should be the defensive line for the Blue Tigers while the likes of Sahal Abdul Samad, Brandon Fernandes, Anirudh Thapa, Udanta Singh and Vinit Rai will fight for the places in the midfield.
Tajikistan shouldn't be a threat to India. The visitors have lost their last five matches in a row but with Stimac's men still just finding their feet in this new, possession-based approach, there is a slight opportunity for an upset. As for India, the tournament should mark the beginning of their preparations for a busy qualification period for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Updated Date: Jul 07, 2019 09:52:55 IST