Stephen Constantine's tough task of rebuilding the Indian football team
In a week’s time, on March 12, the Indian national football team host neighbours Nepal in the first-leg of what could turn out to be the top clash of the Preliminary Round 1 of the Asian qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and 2019 AFC Asian Cup at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati. But new India coach Stephen Constantine has the tough task of rebuilding the Indian national football team after years of stagnation and rather moving backwards than forwards following India's participation in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar.
A week's time to prepare a new national team is tough, especially when you are new to the job. But Stephen's big advantage is that he has three years of Team India experience from 2002 to 2005 and he has also coached in Nepal from 1999 to 2001. But if one sees his squad selection, then one has to realise it is a new squad with little international experience.
The new Indian football team has little international experience
In goal, we have Subrata Pal, which at this level is a safe pair of hands with talented Arindam Bhattacharya and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu as solid backups. The biggest problem I feel is the Indian defence, then there you have Arnab Mondal with 11 international matches as the most experienced player while Aiborlang Khongjee has three and Augustin Fernandes only one game for India with Saumik Dey, Keegan Pereira, Pritam Kotal, Prabir Das and Sandesh Jhingan yet to play for the national team.
The question is; can these boys at the back contain Nepal? I honestly have my doubts. I would have called on some experienced defenders like Gouramangi Singh or Nirmal Chettri at least for these two matches against Nepal. Right-back Denzil Franco, who is out with an ACL will be surely missed. Left-back Narayan Das, who put in some very good performances in the ISL, is also absent.
One player who I would have considered for numerous reasons, even if only on the bench, would have been Deepak Mondal. Some call him an old warhorse at 35, but he could have been a useful influence in the dressing room and used to come on whenever needed.
In midfield we seem to have a similar problem with the lack of experience with Mehtab Hossain and Clifford Miranda not finding a place in the squad with the pressure on the so-called experienced Lenny Rodrigues and Francis Fernandes to take the lead, though both aren't playing well at Dempo. On the other hand, I hope Bengaluru FC’s Eugeneson Lyngdoh gets a chance to start and show his I-League form with which he has impressed everyone, while Lalrindika Ralte on the left uses his sheer talent and Mandar Rao Desai can get his ISL form for FC Goa back.
Up front, I feel we have the least worries. Sunil Chhetri has been the key player for Team India in recent years and his performances for Bengaluru FC have also picked up, while second striker options in Robin Singh, Balwant Singh and Jeje Lalpekhlua have also shown good form in recent months.
It still remains to be seen what formation Stephen chooses, but one thing is sure. The matches against Nepal will most likely be a tight affair, but I still hope we get a good, positive result at home in Guwahati which puts us in a comfortable position travelling to Kathmandu for the return leg on March 17.
India need to progress to the second round of qualifiers. Otherwise, it is another step backwards for Indian football.