As Stephen Constantine announced his 31-man probables squad to took part in the participatory camp in Mumbai for the friendly against Cambodia and their opening AFC Asian Cup 2019 qualifier against Myanmar in Yangon, it seemed like he had retained the core of the squad that had performed admirably in the friendlies held after a disastrous World Cup qualifying campaign.
The Englishman has since, opted to phase out a number of veterans, bringing the age of the national team down considerably and in the process, handing debuts to 29 new faces, the latest, Daniel Lalhlimpuia, taking his bow in the 4-1 victory over Puerto Rico.
Pooled in a group with Kyrgyzstan (ranked 124th), Myanmar (159th) and Macau (184th), the draw was kind to the Blue Tigers and perhaps that has persuaded the coach to go for known faces rather than pick in-form players from the I-League.
A touch of inflexibility, perhaps
If we consider that the Indian Super League as well as the I-League were the major factors upon which the probables were called up, not all selections are justified. Some of these players are out of form or injured while others have struggled for game time at their respective clubs.
The Indian Super League, allowing for a maximum of six foreigners per team, therefore sees a total of 40 Indians or thereabout, get sufficient game-time in the league. While this is too small a pool from which to gauge performances, the I-League with more teams and more spots for Indians becomes an important competition as far as the national team is concerned.
The most surprising selections come in the form of Fulganco Cardozo, Sumeet Passi and Anthony D’ Souza, all of whom have struggled for minutes in the ongoing I-League and have not really been effective when given the chance to do so.
Add to this the fact that a number of other probables have been off-colour and flitted in and out of their squads. Subrata Paul, Arnab Mondal, Sandesh Jhingan, Narayan Das, the Singhs, Jackichand and Seityasen and Eugeneson Lyngdoh have not been upto scratch and the form book does not see them get a spot, but the merit accumulated by these players over the years does.
Although included in the probables for the wealth of experience, it remains to be seen whether Constantine will include them in the matchday squad or the eleven if their performance does not see an upturn.
Out of the four new faces – Nishu Kumar, Subhashish Bose, Jerry Lalrinzuala and Milan Singh, each has impressed either in the ISL or I-League or in Nishu’s case, the AFC Cup. The Muzaffarnagar-born lad, along with Jerry and Daniel represent a crop of young players whom the coach will possible not get any game time, but Constantine has probably selected them with an eye on the future.
Aizawl and Lajong miss out
Amidst Bengaluru FC’s indifferent season, two clubs have really seized the initiative and lie second and fourth in the I-League table for this season. Therefore, it came as a surprise when Constantine only selected one player, Isaac Vanlalsawma from Shillong Lajong and none at all from this season’s dark horses, Aizawl FC.
Twenty of the 31 are from the big three clubs – BFC, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, and it is safe to say that there are some who definitely merited a chance to prove themselves on an international level.
Lajong’s dynamic defensive duo of Chinglensana Singh and Nim Dorjee Tamang, Lalruatthara, Jayesh Rane, Albino Gomes from Aizawl, Kean Lewis who performed superbly in the ISL, Debjit Majumder who has had a fantastic season but doesn’t enjoy a good working relationship with Constantine, Churchill Brothers’ Adil Khan and East Bengal captain Laldrindika Ralte all miss out despite performing better than some of the names on the list.
Lastly, the selection in defence is a tad lopsided as five left-backs have been included while Pritam Kotal is the only specialist right-back included. Constantine must pray that Kotal remains fit and in form given the worrying lack of depth in that position.
How are they likely to line-up?
This will be Constantine’s biggest headache as he does not possess a starting eleven who can claim to be firing on all cylinders. Therefore, the final call will have to take into account some faith-based selections in what is presumably a 4-3-3 formation.
The goalkeeping slot has been firmly pinned down by Gurpreet Singh Sandhu as is the right-back position by Pritam. The defence should see Anas Edathodika, at the moment, the best centre-back in the country, paired with either Jhingan or Mondal, while Subashish Bose may get the nod ahead of Narayan Das on the left.
Considering that there are many in the midfield badly out of form, Pronay Halder may get the nod over Rowllin Borges to man the fort and sit deepest. A compact three may see Milan and Isaac play a role while an expansive three may feature widemen Seityasen, Jackichand, Halicharan Narzary or Udanta Singh. Eugeneson Lyngdoh, normally a shoo-in, has endured a wretched campaign for the Blues, and Constantine, like Albert Roca, may just drop him to the bench.
The attack is the area where Constantine is likely to have the most clarity, with a front three of Sunil Chhetri, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Robin Singh almost guaranteed starters. The latter, returning to the national team, after a long time, looks fit and sharp and may make the difference for the Tigers. CK Vineeth may be a good option off the bench in attack.
Given a relatively straightforward draw, the coach has opted to be safe rather than take a chance on any maverick inclusions. Even so, he will hope that this trusted bunch can put to rest the ghosts of an ill-fated World Cup qualifying campaign and look forward to challenging Asia’s best in 2019.
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