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Undercooked, unprepared & underdogs

Stimac’s men face China, look to play rocky build-up out of park

Undercooked, unprepared & underdogs

The Indian team before departing for Hanghzou. The team will play world No. 80 China on Tuesday. AIFF

Tribune News Service

Daman Singh

Chandigarh, September 18

Until the last-minute inclusion of Sandesh Jhingan and Chinglensana Singh in the squad, the Indian football team was devoid of a semblance of a side that could take the fight to the opposition at the Asian Games.

2Titles won by the Indian men’s team — in 1951 and 1962. They also won a bronze in 1970

India head into the continental event with a second-string squad, led by talisman Sunil Chhetri, following the push-pull between the Indian Super League (ISL) clubs and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) regarding the release of players.

With football at the Asiad being an U-23 affair, allowing three overage players, the original 22-man list proposed by head coach Igor Stimac had several youngsters who played key roles in India’s stupendous recent home run. They won three trophies on the back of an unbeaten run of 12 matches. The streak ended recently in a 1-2 defeat to Iraq in the King’s Cup, their first overseas tour of the season.

The new 22-member squad named by the AIFF has cast serious doubts over their performance in the continental event.

For Stimac and India, the Asiad was going to serve as another test to their credentials for the World Cup qualifiers and the AFC Asian Cup going ahead. It was also another chance for a chunk of the first-team players to retool for the future. Unfortunately, the clubs didn’t release the players — after all, they were under no obligation as the Asian Games do not fall in the FIFA international window.

This means Stimac has only a few players from his requested list to work with while the rest of the players, who are mostly second or third-choice for their ISL clubs, have not even played together once.

Survival instincts

What was supposed to be another round of crucial international exposure is now a desperate fight to avoid a disastrous end.

Clubbed with hosts China and lower-ranked Bangladesh and Myanmar, India are expected to at least reach the last-16 stage. But the lack of preparation time — they reach Hangzhou less than 24 hours before their first match — is certain to make life difficult for them. They take on China tomorrow, without a single training session. Even a draw against China would do India a world of good, knowing they will be up against Bangladesh (September 21) and Myanmar (September 24) next and can fancy a win against them.

“Having two days’ preparation prior to big games never served us well... It’s obvious how India is different when there is a long camp versus a short camp,” Stimac said before flying to China.

China recently defeated India 2-1 in a dramatic turnaround in their U-23 AFC Asian Cup qualifier. This time, however, with Chhetri and Jhingan present, India can hope for a better showing. However, the team’s lean midfield and lack of quality wingers could be their undoing. A lot will be riding on how Chhetri copes with a largely inexperienced squad throughout the group stage, especially with Aniket Jadhav, Rohit Danu and Rahul KP up front. To add to their woes, defenders Chinglensana and Lalchungnunga are unavailable for the first match due to their visas not being ready.

There are six groups and the top two in each group will qualify for the last-16 along with the four best third-placed teams.

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