India’s U-17 women’s football team begin their preparations for next year’s Fifa U-17 World Cup when they face Sweden and Thailand in the three-nation U-17 tournament in Mumbai starting from December 13.

They will take on Sweden on Friday in what will be new coach Thomas Dennerby’s first game in charge of the Indian team. Brought in to groom the team ahead of next year’s showpiece event, Dennerby is blessed to have quality opposition straightaway. The games will help him learn a lot about his players a lot earlier in his tenure.

“This will be the first match-experience against another country for the team since my arrival. I am hoping to see that the players can produce on the pitch the things that we have been working on in training such as formation, movement, etc. We have to make sure that we plan well for the games and that the players are actively looking to do the right things on the field,” the Swede said.

Dennerby, however, already has a fair idea about his players’ qualities and weaknesses having spent a month with the team in a training camp in Goa.

“If you look at the technical skills of the players, in general, most of them are doing very good. Some of them have a really good touch, they have good short passing skills and even long passing,” Dennerby said.

“If we look at the fitness levels – we probably have a little job to do and we have a good fitness coach taking care of that in the form of Per Karlsson. When goalkeepers are younger, they need good support and training as it is the toughest position in the team. In that respect, it is good to have Precious Dede here with all her experience and the championships she has in her bag,” he added.

Sweden’s U-17 team hasn’t been as successful as their senior counterparts who finished in third place at the World Cup earlier this year. Pär Lagerström’s girls are the first Swedish team in seven years to qualify for the Uefa U-17 women’s championship and only the second in their history.

However, having made the cut this time out, the Swedes are going to test India in all departments, especially in the physical aspect.

“I think we can handle the technical aspect against Sweden, but the physicality and endurance is going to be a challenge for us,” said Dennerby.

India can expect similar physical challenges in every game at next year’s World Cup and thus facing the Europeans is great for starters.

Thailand may not be as physical an opponent as Sweden but they possess a great track record at the Asian level in this age group. They have qualified for every AFC U-16 championship since the tournament began in 2005 and have one third-place finish and two fourth-placed finishes.

With a similar playing style like India, Dennerby feels India can realistically aim for all three points against the south-east Asians.

More importantly in terms of preparation, the two distinct oppositions will give the Indian team different problems to deal with which will be a good learning curve for the girls.

Peaking at the right time

Just a month into his tenure as Indian head coach Dennerby is advocating patience not just to the faithful but also to the players. He wants his players to use their technical qualities effectively by adding organisation to their game. The Swede wants his players to be smart.

“I want us to be more open offensively and very strict defensively. I want us to have a good passing game where the players know which spaces to come into, where you want to attack and when to play the crucial passes. In defence, you have to play as a unit and you have to be compact in order to keep the opposition away from the scoring zones,” he said.

Thus, results in the upcoming tournament will be of secondary importance and the focus will be to build for the World Cup in November next year.

“Although I want my players to improve, I sometimes ask them to take it easy. We have 350 sessions before the World Cup and if we can learn one new thing every day, we would be better placed in November next year. It’s all about the World Cup. No one will remember good results of this tournament if we don’t do well in the World Cup,” Dennerby said.

The Swede will continue to scout for more players to add to his existing group in the coming months and a few exposure tours are also on his agenda.

However, India’s performance in the tournament in Mumbai is likely to give Dennerby pointers about the aspects that he needs to work on the most in the coming months. For the girls, the tournament isn’t a question of life and death but certainly marks the beginning of a journey that has the potential to be life-changing.