The Blue Tigers face a monumental test in their bid to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup 2019 as they gear up to face Kyrgyzstan on Tuesday. The Sree Kanteerava stadium in Bengaluru will act as the venue for this crucial qualifier against opponents who should not be taken lightly despite their 132nd rank.
The Indian team has been on a high recently, coinciding with their best ever ranking of 100 in the last two decades. The Central Asian nation will be a different kettle of fish, compared to any opponents that the Indians have played and beaten in the recent past.
Why is this match so important to India’s campaign?
The White Falcons, as the Kyrgyz team is also known, have been on a slow climb to the higher echelons of the three-digit rankings. They hit rock bottom in 2012 when they were ranked 199th, near the basement of the Fifa rankings.
That was the base for a revival, as with a little help from Fifa’s Performance program, the Central Asians almost made it to the final round of World Cup qualifying. But two defeats by powerhouses Australia, a narrow 2-1 loss in Bishkek included, led to them achieving their highest ever rank of 99 in 2016.
A 1-0 victory over heavyweights Jordan meant that the Falcons finished third in Group B of AFC World Cup qualifying and were one of the highest ranked nations going into the third round of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifying.
India, seeded in pot 2 drew Kyrgyzstan in pot 1 and after their 1-0 away win over Myanmar, a victory on Tuesday will almost guarantee qualification for 2019, with comfortable victories expected over minnows Macau. The reverse leg in Bishkek will be their toughest fixture in this group, but with two countries qualifying from each group, India’s last match and Tuesday’s reverse fixture could be rendered inconsequential by a victory at the Kanteerava.
Rising Falcons and a genuine threat
After the disintegration of the USSR in 1992, the Kyrgyz republic was one of the nations which gained their independence, attempting to qualify for the Asian Cup for the first time in 1996.
In the 2000s, they were regulars at the Nehru Cup and faced India twice, in 2007 and 2009, with Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri netting on both occasions. India, however, lost the last meeting between the two sides, going down 2-1 at the AFC Challenge Cup 2010 in Sri Lanka.
Kyrgyz players are not a complete unknown for the Blue Tigers, as three of their players, Ildar Amirov, Ivan Filatov and Bektar Uulu Talgat, featured in the recently concluded I-League season. Bengaluru FC players will be familiar with Maziya goalie Pavel Matiash, having played him twice in 2017.
Viktor Maier, Edgar Bernhardt and Vitalij Lux all play in European leagues and will be formidable opponents. Mirlan Murzaev, the deep lying forward, will be one to watch out for. He is a physical presence up top and plies his trade with Turkish side Usakspor.
Overall, Kyrgyzstan are a gritty unit, stubborn in defence and like to play on the counter while giving very little away. Constantine’s men should be on the alert against a well-oiled unit who like to wear their opponents down before delivering a knock-out punch.
Sluggish starts for India is becoming a norm
In their friendly against Nepal, India were wasteful in the first half and, indeed, could have gone behind had their opponents been more cut-throat after a defensive mix-up forced Gurpreet Singh Sandhu to rush out of his goal.
Nonetheless, the same defence of Narayan Das, Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika are expected to start at the back for the Blue Tigers. Rowllin Borges got taken off with a knock but the East Bengal medio should sit the deepest of India’s midfield against Kyrgyzstan.
Mohammed Rafique, who played against Nepal, could make way for Eugeneson Lyngdoh, who revitalised the team when he came on in the second half. In what should be a 4-2-3-1, Halicharan Narzary, who started last Tuesday, should get the nod.
Constantine’s biggest decision will be whether to persist with Jackichand Singh and Robin Singh. The former has been central to the Englishman’s plans, but was taken off at half-time against Nepal, with replacement Bikash Jairu adding fluidity to the team’s play when brought on.
Robin Singh had plenty of service but struggled up front. He could be dropped with the coach opting for a single striker up front. Chhetri, who was rested against Nepal, could play behind Jeje Lalpekhlua, flanked by Narzary and Jackichand. Constantine may not want to risk Jairu, who returning from a long-term injury.
Buoyed by their Myanmar victory, India will be looking to seal their spot at the 2019 Asian Cup early on. A win here will propel them to six points and with two victories out of the remaining four games, India could well be on their way to Asia’s premier tournament.