When Lebanon pulled out of a proposed friendly against the Indian national team due to uncertainty surrounding visa clearances, the All Nepal Football Association stepped in to ensure that India would play a friendly ahead of their June 13 AFC Asian Cup 2019 qualifier against the Kyrgyz Republic.
There were a few laughs while there were a few ‘I told you so’s’. India facing off against Nepal has almost become an annual affair with the AIFF always seemingly willing to call their Nepali counterparts to bail them out in case of exigencies or in this case, last minute cancellations.
Despite all the chuckles and all the recent success, the Gorkhalis, as Nepal’s football team are also known as, are not to be taken lightly. With Nepal also in the third round of Asian Cup qualifying, it might end up as a useful exercise in helping Stephen Constantine plug the gaps in his side ahead of Kyrgyz Republic’s visit to Bengaluru.
Nepal are in a group with Philippines, Yemen and Tajikistan and lost their first match to the Filipinos 4-1 in Manila and will gear up for Yemen’s visit to the Himalayan nation next week.
In their last official encounter, India thrashed them 4-1 in the SAFF Championship at the very end of 2015. In 2013, Nepal ended a 20-year long wait for a win over India when they surprised their neighbours with a 2-1 victory at the SAFF Championship 2013 held in Kathmandu.
The Gorkhalis also beat India 2-1 at the South Asian Games 2016 in Guwahati, courtesy of goals from Prakash Budhathoki and Nawayug Shrestha. The 169th-ranked Nepalis also won the AFC Solidarity Cup 2016 without losing a single match under the able guidance of former Bhutan manager, Koji Gyotoku, the Japanese credited with the team’s mini-resurgence.
Koji has left experienced striker and captain Anil Gurung out of his squad; Gurung had scored against India at the 2013 SAFF Championships. In Gurung’s absence, defender Biraj Maharjan is almost certain to inherit the armband.
Ex-HAL player Rohit Chand, a defensive midfielder who once plied his trade in India will be the dangerman to Constantine’s side. The 25-year old who plays for Persija Jakarta will sit deep in Nepal’s midfield four in an expected 4-4-2 and look to shackle the Indian attackers.
In naming his 20-man squad, Koji made seven changes but the most prominent young members of the squad are youngsters Bimal Magar, Anjan Bista and Ananta Tamang, all of whom train at the Marbella Academy in Spain. Magar became Nepal’s youngest debutant at 14 and youngest goalscorer a year later.
Stephen Constantine is no stranger to Nepal football though, having managed them for a brief while before his first stint with India. It was also his first ever international coaching assignment.
The young Myanmar team had overrun India’s midfield in their last game. The Blue Tigers may have sneaked it 1-0 courtesy of Udanta Singh’s surge and pass which led to Sunil Chhetri tucking it away.
Although Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Rowllin Borges may again get the nod in a 4-2-3-1, there are several candidates for the deep lying two slots. Isaac Vanmalsawma, who had an excellent I-League season could be experimented with, as could be Milan Singh.
Further forward, Udanta Singh’s injury is a big blow as the Manipuri winger is without a doubt, the fastest of the attackers available to Constantine. The Englishman may again play it safe, opting for Jackichand Singh but Nepal presents the perfect opportunity to test the skills of Aizawl winger Laldanmawia Ralte. Jackichand skipped the Federation Cup and does not merit inclusion over Ralte on the basis of form.
Four of the five places in defence are as good as locked with Narayan Das appearing to be the most likely candidate for the left-back slot. Constantine had also experimented with Fulganco Cardozo at that position most recently but has a couple of youngsters in Jerry Lalrinzuala and Nishu Kumar who are eager to make the step up to India colours.
Chhetri will not be playing this match and in-form CK Vineeth has left the camp due to a sore ankle too, while it remains to be seen if Jeje Lalpekhlua or Robin Singh or possibly both of them start up front for the Blue Tigers.
It may not be Lebanon, but Nepal most definitely presents a golden opportunity for Constantine to iron out the small chinks prior to the visit of the Kyrgyz Republic.