The last part of India’s first-ever audition at a Fifa World Cup, a three-part one, comes to an end today as the Under-17s take on Ghana in a must-win Group A fixture at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi.
Scratch that – this may not be the last part as India still have a mathematical chance to qualify for the Round of 16. But it is most definitely the toughest, as envisaged by Indian head coach Luis Norton de Matos. The 90 minutes that India are scheduled to play on Thursday evening will demonstrate whether India are able to compete on an equal footing with the best of the best at this level.
And at this level, they don’t come much better than Ghana – two-time world champions in the ’90s and two-time losing finalists. De Matos put it aptly, “At this age group, African teams are very strong, a dream.”
That Ghana are the most dangerous of India’s group A opponents is a no-brainer. The 1990s were a truly remarkable era for the Black Starlets, winning the Fifa U-17 World Cup in 1991 and 1995, reaching four out of five finals in this period, and finishing third in the 1999 edition. Some of the starlets from the 1990s, including Samuel Kuffour, Stephen Appiah and Michael Essien, would go on to represent the senior side at the Fifa World Cup in the 2000s.
Since those heady days, though, except for a semi-final berth in 2007, the Ghanaians have had something of a barren run, reaching the global showpiece just twice in the last seven attempts.
At the African Cup of Nations, Ghana became the first team from the continent to qualify for the World Cup but endured a stop-start tournament, finishing as losing finalists to Mali. Samuel Febin, Ghana’s coach, was understandably distraught at the loss to US, despite having more shots on target.
The World Cup has also seen the team hitting low and high patches but with qualification on the line, expect the Black Starlets to come out swinging. India will have to be very wary of a team that despite the loss, is still considered to be one of the contenders for the title.
Overall, Ghana have had 35 attempts on goal at India 2017, with only nine of those finding the target. Against the US, a large percentage of their shots were blocked as the Americans resorted to some great last-ditch defending.
The Africans like to attack in numbers, and the wing-backs love to bomb forward, overlapping with the wingers as they play an expansive 4-2-3-1 formation. Aminu Mohammed, Sadiq Ibrahim, Emmanuel Toku are all pacy and exploit the flanks. Captain and highest goalscorer at the Under-17 African Cup of Nations, Eric Ayiah, was scouted by Manchester City earlier this season. He is yet to come good in this tournament but could do so on Thursday.
This will be an especially difficult challenge for the Indians, considering that the Ghanian attack combines the ball-playing technicality of the US and the physicality of the Colombians. Defensive organisation will be of utmost importance, as Ghana look to exploit the space behind the defence.
Considering that there are very few in this Indian team who combine pace and physicality, De Matos may not play as high a line as India did against Colombia, instead opting to sit back and soak up pressure for the first 30 minutes, akin to their game against the US.
From an Indian point of view, De Matos has hinted at a few changes in personnel, enforced by a combination of tired legs and niggles to few players. Amarjit Kiyam and Nongdamba Naorem are fitness doubts and De Matos may not risk playing them.
Suresh Wangjam, on the bench for the Colombia game, may take Amarjit’s position at the heart of midfield, while Komal Thatal may replace Rahul KP or Ninthoinganba Meetei as both have exerted himself in both the games that they have played so far.
Anwar Ali, in the centre of defence, was an absolute rock but struggled through the last match, going to ground several times. Jitendra Singh may fill in for this crucial fixture.
More importantly, the strategy of sitting back and hitting Ghana on the counter may backfire as the West Africans possess the pace to track back and defend. India may need long periods of sustained pressure to break their opponents down.
With both Colombia and Ghana on three points, India will hope for a goal swing of +4 and a victory. They have 90 minutes to do it against one of the most formidable opponents at this World Cup.