India’s second friendly in China against the home team, the first after a gap of 34 years, ended in a 0-0 stalemate.

Stephen Constantine’s men were second best throughout, but to be fair to them, the Blue Tigers had a few chances of their own. The defence, under the leadership of captain for the evening Sandesh Jhingan, stood tall, but was lucky to escape a few dangerous forays by the Chinese forwards.

The frame of the goal shook twice but thankfully for Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and co, the ball did not go in even after an almighty goal-mouth scramble in the second half. The keeper, after coming in for some stick for his AFC Cup performances, must also rightly take the plaudits.

Keeper saves the day

Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has endured a mixed year since returning to the Indian fold. Seemingly untouchable for that number one spot both at club and national level, Sandhu has made uncharacteristic errors in the goal.

The AFC Cup match against Altyn Asyr was surely the nadir, the keeper making two huge errors and all but ruling Bengaluru FC out of the tie. Amrinder Singh made the most saves of any keeper in the Indian Super League last season and has been steadily improving over the last three years.

Vishal Kaith has also come into his own, keeping three clean sheets in the SAFF Cup and cementing his place at Pune City. Against China, Gurpreet was always going to start but he needed to make a strong statement.

And he did so. Getting low to make a good save in the first half, he tipped over another effort late in the game. Gurpreet’s punching rather than opting to catch remains a cause of concern for some who believe doing the latter may alleviate the pressure.

Against China though, Gurpreet was not afraid to stride forward and cut out attacks. Constantine and the rest of the management would do well to keep him wrapped in cotton wool. In matches where India are expected to be doing a lot of defending, Sandhu, not Chhetri, will be the team’s most important asset.

Jeje has a shocker

In the build-up to the game, striker Jeje Lalpekhlua’s form was questioned and indeed being discussed over the commentary and pre-match show, and rightly so.

The 27-year-old Mizo sharpshooter has looked low on energy and ideas this season in Chennaiyin FC’s opening two games and he was mercifully hooked off with 15 minutes to go. Farukh Choudhary took Jeje’s place but Constantine may start looking for another alternative to Jeje.

Despite experts claiming that Jeje’s fight for the aerial balls and his ‘creativity’ makes him more than a conventional forward, his inclusion in the squad is purely on the basis that he is often in the right place at the right time to slot ‘em in.

He looked anonymous, went missing for large periods and when given chances and passes, was too ponderous on the ball. The decision making was questionable but the coach’s problem will be the paucity of options in that position. With less than three months to go for the Asian Cup, Constantine will be against tinkering with that forward line. If this wretched form of Jeje continues, the plug will have to be pulled though.

Defensive permutations and combinations

*Kotal, Bose, Jhingan, Narayan

*Kotal, Anas, Jhingan, Bose

*Kotal, Anas, Jhingan, Narayan

*Kotal, Bose, Jhingan, Jerry

*Lalruatthara, Anas, Jhingan, Jerry

At some point in the past year, Constantine has opted for all these combinations and it was the first one that he opted for against China. Narayan Das was the surprise starter because of the fact that Subhasish Bose was expected to start on the left side.

Bose’s versatility and the fact that he is possibly the best on the left side should have made him the first choice. On Saturday, Narayan’s crossing left a lot to be desired and it was possibly his his incessant running and defensive ability that prompted his selection over Jerry Lalrinzuala.

Among the defenders, Pritam Kotal is possibly the most indispensable of the lot owing to the fact that there are no right-backs in India (sorry Rino Anto and temporary RB Adil Khan). Yet he kept getting caught out of position.

This clean sheet cannot be taken away from the defence, yet it’s no closer to answering Constantine’s original question: What is India’s best back four?