Asian Cup 2019: Contenders play friendlies, India hold intra-team match - Will it cost them dear?
However, while Thailand and the other teams in the competition stepped up their preparations by playing friendlies in the last couple of days, India conducted an intra-team match on December 30, which means they basically held a training session.
For India, this is an important tournament as it will indicate the amount of progress they have made in the continent since 2011 - the last time they qualified for the final stages of the Asian Cup. The Blue Tigers, who have climbed up from 173 to 97 in the FIFA rankings in the last three years, are hopeful of qualifying for the knock-out stage at least.
But their attitude towards playing friendlies could hamper that objective.
The Indian football team seems to be too lethargic when it comes to playing international friendlies. Be it normal fixtures in a FIFA calendar year or a crucial preparation match before a big tournament, India always prefers to stay away.
Back in 2011, when India last played in the Asian Cup, the players were barred from playing for their respective clubs at least six months before the commencement of the tournament. They had a six-month-long national camp but that anyway didn't help them progress further in the tournament.
In the current scenario, a six-month-long training camp is not possible. Footballers have to play for their clubs all throughout the year. Even the teams that played in the 2018 FIFA World Cup did not organise a camp which lasted for more than a month.
In this case, friendlies are the most potent tool to analyse your team’s strengths and weaknesses. Friendlies not only help you to gain some match practice but also give an idea of what the challenges will be. Clearly, head coach Stephen Constantine doesn’t think so.
India played Oman on December 27 as a preparation for the Asian Cup. They drew them 0-0 and were slated to play Syria three days later. But India ‘politely’ declined the request much before landing at Abu Dhabi.
The national team was tipped to play against a UAE-based club but even that didn't happen. Instead, they played a game amongst themselves.
It's hard to figure what they achieved by playing against themselves and not a game against a higher-ranked side like Syria.
Syria, who are in good form, played Yemen on the same day and won 1-0. They are going to face Jordan, Palestine and defending champions Australia in Group B of the Asian Cup.
Why India didn't choose to play them is puzzling. Why didn't India play anyone though? That's baffling.
Forget Syria, take the example of India’s group stage opponents. Thailand are coming into the tournament after playing a hard-fought AFF Championship, where they reached the semi-finals and lost to Malaysia on penalties. Bahrain played three friendlies within nine days, thrashed Tajikistan 5-0 and North Korea 4-0. Only UAE haven’t held practice matches before the Asian Cup.
Why then is Constantine unwilling to push the All India Football Federation to organise more friendlies?
Even during the build-up to the Asian Cup, India did not make the best use of the FIFA international break window.
Despite having two match days in November, India played only one match against Jordan. The same goes for October, when they played one match against China.
Constantine ‘proudly’ said he turned down Carlos Quieroz’s request to play a friendly against Iran on December 27 as they already had a scheduled match in line against Oman. When the best team in the continent wants to play you, why on earth would you refuse them? The answer can best be given by Constantine himself.
The attitude reminds one of the Indian cricket team, which didn’t play any practice matches before the tour of South Africa last year and had curtailed match-days against an English team in the following tour. The results of those two series are there for all to see.
Will this gamble of not playing friendlies before a big tournament affect India's results at the Asian Cup? The answer is more likely, yes.
Though all the players have spent more than two months playing the Indian Super League, not all of them had a great time on the field. Their dip in form should be a major concern for Constantine ahead of the tournament.
Take the example of Jeje Lalpekhlua. The Mizo is the main striker of this team along with Sunil Chhetri. But he is struggling to score for Chennaiyin FC. Not even a single time in the 11 ISL matches (556 minutes) did he find the back of the net for his team.
Both the centre-backs Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika have failed to show their best on the field. Jhingan has been inconsistent on the field, getting bamboozled by opponent strikers quite easily. Anas has not played enough matches for Kerala Blasters to regain his confidence after returning from an injury.
Apart from goalkeepers Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Amrinder Singh and captain Sunil Chhetri, no one looks to be enjoying form. On that note, friendlies would’ve helped them regain confidence and even if they made mistakes, they had time to rectify it. Also, they had chances to know the strategies of their opponents.
But none of that happened. Despite being the first team to land in UAE, India kept playing ‘practice matches among themselves’. Will they also be the first team to leave the UAE?