India’s last Asian Cup qualifier against Kyrgyzstan is anything but an inconsequential game. It could determine India’s fate at their first international tournament appearance since the Asian Cup in 2011.
With the draw on May 4, it could well be said that this is the most important of India’s matches. The Blue Tigers qualified for the Asian Cup to be held in UAE next year, but for a team in transition will the tournament come too early?
India are currently in 13th place in Asia, which means they occupy the top spot in Pot 3 for the Asian Cup draw. A win would push them beyond Lebanon, who currently occupy the 12th spot in Asia and the last seat in Pot 2.
Crucial for the draw
Fortunately or otherwise, the Central Asians will prove to be the perfect test for India. Without four of their regular starters? Check. Without captain marvel Sunil Chhetri? Check. Away to a potentially tricky opponent? Check.
The Kyrgyz will be extra motivated not due to their 1-0 loss in the reverse fixture but also due to the fact that a win could move them to pot 2, leapfrogging both India and Lebanon.
For India to get into pot 2, only a win will do. Anything less and they will find themselves, facing two higher-ranked opponents at next year’s Asian extravaganza. At the moment, Uzbekistan, Palestine, Syria, United Arab Emirates (Asian Cup hosts), Iraq and Lebanon are the teams in pot 2. Stephen Constantine’s men should go all out on Tuesday to try and avoid any of these teams.
Striking duo have to step up
The biggest miss will be the biggest name on the team sheet, Chhetri. The captain is ruled out through suspension, and in his absence, the combination of Jeje Lalpekhlua and Balwant Singh must step up.
The Mizo sniper has an Indian Super League winners medal to his name and this has been his best scoring season since his 13-goal haul with the Indian Arrows. However, Jeje continues to be erratic and on the periphery of games at times.
In the recently finished ISL, he went through a seven-game barren run and will lead the line with Balwant Singh playing off him. The Mumbai City forward notched six goals but he will provide a different option to Jeje, with his off-the-ball runs.
Balwant managed six goals in his 16 ISL games this season, and has scored twice in the qualifiers. The 31-year-old is finally getting games at the highest level, and he will want to seize this opportunity, as he will look to find himself on that place to UAE.
India’s biggest chance of winning the game could come through the right. Udanta Singh has netted a league-high seven assists in the ISL this season, and his raw pace could be the X-factor on the evening. With Jackichand Singh absent, Holicharan Narzary should take a place up on the left side. Eugeneson Lyngdoh is also absent as Mohammed Rafique may see a start in midfield.
Tough ask for Blue Tigers
With their 5-1 win over Myanmar last week, the Kyrgyz sealed their place in UAE 2019 and are no pushovers. In Bengaluru, they hit the crossbar and dominated the game in the first half only for India to keep them out long enough.
Chhetri, who scored a great goal on the night to give India the win is absent and crucially also is Pritam Kotal. India’s first-choice right-back will not be present to counter the threat on Kyrgyzstan’s left, Anton Zemlyanukhin, easily their biggest asset and scorer of two goals against Myanmar.
Zemlyanukhin has scored five goals in the qualifying stage so far and the White Falcons have 12 themselves, so expect stand-in captain Gurpreet Sandhu and the men in front of them, Anas Edathodika and Sandesh Jhingan, to have their work cut out for them.
Playing their first competitive match in almost five months, what frame of mind will India be in? With this the last match before the April 12 rankings which will decide the draw for the Asian Cup and without some of their regular starters, this could be India’s most important match of 2018.