The Indian football team is all set to play in the 47th edition of the prestigious King’s Cup in Thailand, starting from the 5th of June, in what will be Igor Stimac’s first big test as the national team coach. The former Croatia national footballer took over the job last month, replacing Englishman Stephen Constantine, who stepped down after the Asian Cup.
The competition, which will feature well-established teams such as hosts Thailand, Vietnam and Curacao, will be a good indicator to how much the Indian team has progressed in recent times. After a respectable performance in the Asian Cup, the immediate task for Stimac and his team will be to identify the next generation Indian team footballers who can push the side to the elite group in Asia.
India will face Curacao, the best-ranked team in the tournament, in their first match, with the winner directly qualifying for the final, which will be played against the winner of the match between Thailand and Vietnam. Curacao by no means will be pushovers for India. The team is in a good run of form, with four victories in the last six matches, including a 1-0 win against Bolivia.
The coach himself will be under some pressure, with a fragment of football fans still convinced that former Bengaluru FC manager Albert Roca was better suited for the position of the national team manager than the Croat.
Big team football
The lead up to the event has been entirely positive though. Stimac’s promise that his team will not play ‘small team football’ and newly appointed technical director Doru Isac’s desire for “synchronized, possession-based football”, must have been music to Indian football supporters who had accused Constantine of adopting a caution-based approach with his teams, despite having a pool of attacking players to choose from.
Unfortunately, history doesn’t go in sync with Stimac’s words. In his time as the Croatian coach, he was accused of playing a boring, defensive football in a skewed 4-4-2 formation that saw Ivan Rakitic occupy a wide left position in a midfield diamond, while Luka Modric controlled the centre.
The coach is known gambler though, not afraid to make drastic changes, and one shouldn’t be surprised if he opts for a different approach with this Indian team. His 23-man squad is loaded with midfield options which certainly means that is an area where he likes to have options.
Stimac has 11 midfielders, each with his own set of qualities in the squad, which is a clear indication that this is a region where he would like to chop and change till he finds the perfect combination. Star forward Sunil Chhetri had high praise for Kerala Blasters’ youngster Sahal Abdul Samad ahead of the tournament which means he is likely to be in the scheme of things for Stimac, but the Kerala-born footballers will have stiff competition in Constantine’s favourite attacking midfielder Anirudh Thapa and the impressive Brandon Fernandes. With Dhanapal Ganesh not making the final cut, Pronay Halder remains the only defensive midfielder in the team, which means he is likely to get the nod.
If Stimac does go ahead with a 4-4-2, it will interesting to see who occupy the wings. Udanta Singh, who has by now formed a telepathic connection with Chhetri, should be a sure starter, while Michael Soosairaj and Jackichand Singh are coming off impressive domestic campaigns. None of these players are great defensively though.
Stimac used a right-back in Darijo Srna as a right midfielder to bring stability to the side. Rahul Bheke fits the description – his marauding runs in the flank and long throws are a huge asset – but that looks unlikely with just five players in the squad to fill up what should be a four-man defence.
The lack of centre-backs in the team is a major concern. Subhasish Bose will be expected to partner Sandesh Jhingan in the centre which means either Bheke or Pritam Kotal, both natural right footers, will have to play as a left-back. Another option would be to play Bheke in the centre – the versatile Bengaluru FC player has played in a three-man defence before. Adil Khan is a surprise inclusion in the list of defenders but must be an option to play in the centre if a need arises.
The Jobby Justin debate
Stimac has handed first-time calls to the national teams for Bheke, Fernandes, Raynier Fernandes, Soosairaj and Sahal but one name that strangely missed out is that of Jobby Justin, who had a great season in front of goal for East Bengal. With Chhetri not getting any younger, the King's Cup was billed as the tournament that will showcase the future of the Indian national football team, and it certainly seems Stimac fancies a classical centre-forward than someone like Justin who likes to roam around.
The 32-year-old ATK forward Balwant Singh isn’t exactly the future though and hasn't had a great ISL season either. Manvir Singh, promising as he may be, has struggled for game time in FC Goa while Farukh Choudhury hasn’t really set the world on fire either with his performances for Jamshedpur FC. Collectively, the three scored just four goals in the entire Indian Super League (ISL) season. Justin’s tally was 11 in the I-League.
That said, Soosairaj, Udanta and Lallianzuala Chhangte bring great pace and acceleration into the attack for India, so a 4-3-3 formation, with two of the three playing as wide forwards and Chhetri in the centre, could well be the reason for the slightly bewildering selection.
All said and done, it is still early days for Stimac and it would be wise to give the coach some leeway for making a team that fits his ideology.
The King’s Cup also comes at an important juncture for Indian football. The team is no longer the underdog and Stimac’s main objective will surely be to steer India to Asia’s top 10. The big test starts now.
Final 23-man squad
Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh, Kamaljit Singh.
Defenders: Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan, Rahul Bheke, Subhasish Bose, Adil Khan.
Midfielders: Udanta Singh, Jackichand Singh, Brandon Fernandes, Anirudh Thapa, Raynier Fernandes, Pronay Halder, Vinit Rai, Sahal Abdul Samad, Amarjit Singh, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Michael Soosairaj.
Forwards: Balwant Singh, Sunil Chhetri, Farukh Choudhary, Manvir Singh.
Updated Date: Jun 04, 2019 13:30:37 IST