Ahead of the Intercontinental Cup, Indian football team's head coach Stephen Constantine had to face some criticism with regard to his choice of players for the tournament. To an extent, it was justified as some of the good performers in the domestic season were not included in the squad. Constantine, on his behalf, argued that he picks players who can play to the system of the team. Now that India clinched the four-nation tournament, it can be said that Constantine did enough to silence his critics. But the team is definitely not bereft of problems and Constantine still needs to find few answers.
All three countries – Chinese Taipei, Kenya and New Zealand – who participated in the Intercontinental Cup were under-strength with a majority of their first team players not travelling. India hosted the Intercontinental Cup to prepare for next year's AFC Asian Cup. So keeping that in mind, playing against weakened sides was not the ideal way to prepare for a big tournament. To be fair, India can't do much if their opponents don't send their best players. In the first match against the Taiwan side, India's intensity and attacking prowess stood out while the team showed determination to break the strong Kenyan defence and beat them comprehensively. However, it was the defeat against New Zealand that exposed India's biggest weakness – lack of alternatives at key positions.
After winning the first two matches, Constantine rested few senior players and selected a second string team to play against the All Whites. Both first choice centre-backs - Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika were rested. Salam Ranjan Singh and Subhasish Bose, who were in charge of the defence, failed to contain New Zealand. On the other hand, Jhingan and Anas hardly lost their way when they started in the three games which India won. Similarly, Jeje Lalpekhlua also didn't start against New Zealand with Constantine opting for Balwant Singh. The former Mumbai City FC forward had a great chance to prove a point and make his case stronger for inclusion in the Asian Cup squad but ultimately, he failed to make an impact.
To focus a bit on Balwant, there might be a case that Constantine's system is not really helping him. Jeje does well when it comes to beating his markers and controlling a long ball during an attack. Meanwhile, Balwant's strength lies in his incessant running and getting into dangerous positions to score. Constantine likes to play the long ball game instead of attacking from the wings. The latter style of play suits better for Balwant.
Next six months are crucial as the team prepares for January's Asian Cup. Constantine will hope that his first-choice players don't end up in the injured list. Fortunately for India, none of the key players had any fitness issue during the Intercontinental Cup, but there's no guarantee that things will be the same in the coming months. Also, with so little time left for the Asian Cup, it's unlikely that Constantine will look to bring in new faces into the squad, although he did say after the conclusion of Intercontinental Cup that he's always looking for new players.
There are positions where India don't have good alternatives and where the team's first choice players may not be good enough for the Asian stage. If the Intercontinental Cup performance has to be taken into account then Halicharan Narzary doesn't look entirely convincing on the left. Narzary didn't have a great season with NorthEast United last time around and neither did he do anything significant for the national team. He gets hold of the ball using his physicality and pace but fails terribly when it comes to delivering a good cross. Constantine probably prefers Narzary because the midfielder does a decent job when it comes to tracking back and defending. India prefer to attack from the right with the focal point being Udanta Singh so there's not much pressure on Narzary. But with young players like Ashique Kuruniyan waiting on the sidelines, Narzary has no other choice but to step up his game.
With the inclusion of Anirudh Thapa, India's midfield performed better than they did in the past. After having a good season with Indian Super League champions Chennaiyin FC, Thapa was solid in his attacking midfielder role for India. He was at his energetic best, displayed glimpses of creativity and did not succumb to pressure. The combination of Thapa and Pronoy Haldar did work for the team with the latter also doing well as a defensive midfielder. Constantine will have to make a decision whether to stick with the youngster or look for a more experienced player for the Asian Cup. His trusted midfield general Eugeneson Lyngdoh missed the majority of the last season due to injury and the fitness issues also resulted in him not making it to the national squad. If he comes into the picture just before the Asian Cup then Thapa will have to face the competition.
Overall, Constantine will be happy that things went as per plans in the Intercontinental Cup. He would also know that his team won the trophy beating second-string teams. The real test will come when the side will face tougher opponents away from home. If the proposed friendly with Saudi Arabia does take place later this year then that would give an accurate picture of the team's preparedness for the Asian Cup.
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Updated Date: Jun 12, 2018 20:34:59 IST