An Indian side in transition has to qualify from a group including North Korea, Tajikistan and Philippines.
It is a tournament that has provided the national team with their best moment in recent times, and India will be raring to taste similar success when they kick off their 2012 AFC Challenge Cup campaign in Kathmandu on Friday.
Coincidentally, the team they are up against first is Tajikistan, the same side they had drubbed 4-1 in the final of the 2008 edition to qualify for the prestigious Asia Cup after a gap of 27 years. That glorious night in New Delhi represented a high point for Indian football, one that suggested that the team might finally be ready to turn a corner after years of failure and disappointment.
Much has changed in these four years though, and it is a very different group that will take the field with the responsibility of carrying forward those hopes. The man at the helm is also no longer the same – Bob Houghton, the Englishman who oversaw the 2008 victory, was removed after helping India qualify for the 2012 event (India topped their group in the qualifiers in Malaysia last year, up against Pakistan, Chinese Taipei and Turkmenistan); and the man now in charge is his former assistant, Savio Medeira.
The squad also has a new look to it, without several of the players who were a part of that winning campaign, including star striker and talismanic captain Bhaichung Bhutia and seniors Climax Lawrence and Mahesh Gawli. India will miss their experience and quality, especially as they find themselves as the lowest-ranked side in a difficult group.
Incredibly, it is for Bhutia that India have found the best replacement so far, with new skipper Sunil Chhetri by far the key player on whom hopes will rest. It was his winning goal in the semi-final and hat-trick in the final that had brought India success in the 2008 tournament, and the AIFF Player of the Year will be expected to lead the charge once again, especially in Bhutia’s absence. The Mohun Bagan striker is on his way back from injuries, but he had a prolific 2011 with the national side (13 goals in 17 games), finishing as the topscorer as India won the SAFF Cup.
Jeje Lalpekhula, out with a knee injury, will be a big miss and Sushil Kumar Singh is likely to partner Chhetri up front, though Medeira may also be tempted to try the promising Joaquim Abranches or CS Sabeeth.
The Goan coach will have no choice but to field inexperience in midfield, however, with Anthony Pereira the only veteran among talented youngsters like Jewel Raja, Lalrindika Ralte, Rocus Lamare and the highly-rated Adil Khan. Meanwhile, Francis Fernandes, on the left flank, and Reisangmi Vashum, on the right, have shown glimpses of their ability in friendly matches prior to the Challenge Cup and could play a crucial role in creating opportunities for the strikers.
India’s main worries, as Medeira has also admitted, will be in defence. Gourmangi Singh, though not in the best of form, is India’s best central defender, with his useful height and timely tackles providing the team with some much-needed solidity at the back. Finding a regular partner for the 26-year-old has proved to a real headache so far though, with Samir Naik likely to follow Gawli into retirement soon and Anwar Ali woefully out of form. The unproven East Bengal pair of Nirmal Chhetri and Raju Gaikwad may prove to be the better options, while Syed Rahim Nabi, at rightback, will be expected to repeat his impressive showing in the SAFF Cup, as will first-choice goalkeeper Karanjit Singh. Nabi, especially, is crucial not only in defence but also as the creator of the majority of India’s goal-scoring opportunities.
The team’s task will not be made any easier by their higher-ranked opponents in the ‘Group of Death’. The most formidable will be defending champions Korea DPR, who participated in the 2010 World Cup and, at 111, are the highest-ranked side in the group. 2006 winners Tajikistan, meanwhile, will be gunning for revenge, while even the injury-hit Philippines, placed two notches above India at 156 in the FIFA rankings, cannot be taken lightly.
India’s recent results aren’t very encouraging either. The team has played three friendlies coming into the tournament – losing 5-1 to Oman and 3-0 to Azerbaijan, before finally beating an amateur Dubai-based Iranian club 3-1 in their last match. However, coach Medeira fielded largely experimental sides in those games, partly due to injury concerns, and the SAFF Cup was won in December despite being preceded by a 5-0 friendly loss to Zambia.
So, with the team still in transition and Korea DPR the clear favourites, India’s first focus will be to at least finish second in their group so as to qualify for the semi-finals. Competing against such stronger sides will also provide important lessons to the young team, helping them grow and boost their confidence.
For Medeira personally, a second successive major trophy, that too on foreign soil, will improve his chances of keeping the job beyond May 2012, when his contract expires.
“It is the ambition of every coach and every team to win the trophy and I have confidence in the boys I have selected,” he said. “If they have confidence in the way they play on the pitch, then we can have a good tournament.”
Most of all, with a place in the 2015 Asia Cup at stake, India will be hoping to write another famous chapter in their history. As Sunil Chhetri said, “We need to carry on the legacy for the benefit of Indian football.”
Goalkeepers: Karanjit Singh, Subhasish Roychowdhury, Arindam Bhattacharya
Defenders: Nirmal Chhetri, Raju Gaikwad, Sameer Naik, Gourmangi Singh, Anwar Ali, Kinsukh Debnath, Syed Rahim Nabi (vice-captain), Gurjinder Singh
Midfielders: Adil Khan, Anthony Pereira, Reisangmi Vashum, Rocus Lamare, Francis Fernandes, Jewel Raja, Lenny Rodrigues, Lalrindika Ralte
Forwards: Sunil Chhetri (captain), Sushil Singh, CS Sabeeth, Joaquim Abranches
March 9 - India vs Tajikistan
March 11 - India vs Philippines
March 13 - India vs North Korea