India take on Chinese Taipei in the opener of the Intercontinental Cup at the Mumbai Football Arena on Friday.
Coached by former Guam coach Gary White, Chinese Taipei are ranked 121st in the world but have witnessed a resurgence in the last three years. They hit their lowest ranking of 191 in June but have since then won 12 of their 21 matches to climb to 70 places.
White, who had masterminded a 2-1 victory over India previously as Guam coach, said, “India are a strong team and they’re going up step by step. Sunil (Chettri) is nearing to achieve a milestone. I hope he reaches it in the next two games but not against us (laughs). This tournament is going to add massive experience to our boys, more than any of the training sessions.”
In the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, India lost to White’s Guam once and beat them 1-0 in Bengaluru in the return leg.
White, however, was of the opinion that this Indian team was a vastly different team to the one he faced two years ago, with a lot of new faces.
For Stephen Constantine, the tournament will be of importance, even without the other teams bringing their strongest squads. “Look, we don’t control the teams that the other countries send. We’re looking to play stronger opponents as the Asian Cup approaches. We will use this tournament as a preparation for the AFC Asian Cup. I am aware of the quality of the players whom Kenya and New Zealand have brought in and they are playing all across Europe.”
The Englishman, head coach of the Indian team in his second stint, stated that he would go ‘all out’, indicating that the hosts might field a strong line-up in their opening game.
Captain Sunil Chhetri, who missed out against Kyrgyzstan through suspension, should take the field as should the returning Pritam Kotal, who was absent in Bishkek. Lalruatthara’s horror show at right back means that the Delhi Dynamos defender is likely to remain India’s number one choice on the right for the foreseeable future.
The biggest return could be that of Pronay Halder. Finally fit and back in the national camp, the midfielder could and should take the place of Mohammed Rafique, slotting in next to Rowllin Borges.
Another big question for Constantine to answer are the wingmen. Halicharan Narzary, who had a less-than-desirable outing against the Kyrgyz, is likely to start with Udanta Singh on the right but two contenders wait in the wings.
Laldanmawia Ralte is back after an absence of nine months from the squad while young Ashique Kuruniyan could be the ace in the pack, as he possesses a left foot that could serve Constantine and India very well.
For Taipei, White confirmed that 11 of the 23-man squad were below 23, but they should still be able to put out a strong line-up. Midfielder Will Donkin, on Crystal Palace’s books is one to watch out for, and has five international caps at just 17 years of age.
Forwards Chen Hao-Wei, of Chinese club Beijing Enterprises and number nine Li Mao could also trouble the Indian defence as Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and co look to shut the East Asian side out.
Taipei finished one point short of qualifying for the Asian Cup, but managed to defeat one of India’s opponents at UAE 2019, Bahrain by a margin of two goals to one. This is a team in the ascendancy and one that the Blue Tigers will have to be wary of.