India resumes their campaign in the Second Round of AFC World Cup qualifiers in Group E against Qatar on June 3rd after 632 days of holding the Asian Champions to a stalemate in Doha. India’s performances since then have not lived up to its promise. If we look back, India has not won a football match since beating Thailand in the Asian Cup. After their heroics against Qatar, hopes were high for better performances against Bangladesh and Afghanistan, both games ending at 1-1.
With not many International football matches taking place in 2020 due to the Covid-19 virus, India, after a very successful ISL 7 that saw a burst of youthful exuberance and talent in Indian football, faced off against Oman and UAE in friendlies.
Playing their first International game since 2019, India faced off against Oman in Dubai, with Igor Stimac handing out debuts to 10 players. India presented an excellent account of themselves as they held Oman to 1-1 draw, Manvir Singh canceling out a Sana Singh own goal in the first half. Their next game against UAE was a rude awakening as the hosts pumped half a dozen goals past a hapless and inexperienced Indian side.
India travels to Qatar to play out the remaining of their three matches in the group. India will face Qatar on June 3rd before facing Bangladesh on the 7th and Afghanistan on the 15th. India is currently 4th in the table with 3 points, one behind Afghanistan in 3rd, a position India will be gunning for. Finishing 3rd will guarantee India a place in the third round of the 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers. With a lot riding on these three encounters for Indian football, let’s look at how India could line up against the formidable Asian Champions.
Goalkeeper: Amrinder Singh
Mumbai City FC had a dream 2020/21 season, winning the League Shield and the ISL trophy. Amrinder, under the bar for the Islanders, too, rode on this high wave of success and had an impressive ISL season. The 27-year-old kept ten clean sheets and conceded just 21 goals. He missed out narrowly on the Golden Glove award to Arindam Bhattacharya of ATK Mohun Bagan on account of conceding two more goals. Amrinder also pulled off 61 saves during the ISL season, the second-most saves made by any goalkeeper. With Gurpreet struggling for form this season, Stimac could give Amrinder the no.1 position. The Mumbai man will have to be on his toes against the Qataris.
Defenders: Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan, Sana Singh, and Akash Mishra
Pritam Kotal has been a regular feature for ATK Mohun Bagan down the right-hand side. The 27-year-old Right Back once again had a solid and resourceful 2020/21 season for the Mariners, with Antonio Habas putting his trust in the local lad in the ISL. His defensive ability will be an asset in Stimac’s armory.
Chinglensana Singh and Sandesh Jhingan could partner up in the heart of the defense. Sandesh is looking for a stable defensive partner, and Sana Singh could answer that problem. While Sandesh again had a standout season in the ISL. He led the Mariners on the cusp of AFC Champions League qualification and the ISL trophy before faltering at the final hurdle against Mumbai City on both occasions.
While ATK Mohun Bagan, driven by the defensive solidarity provided by Jhingan, had an almost great but good season, Sana Singh inspired performance in Hyderabad’s defensive unit almost got the Nizam’s to a maiden playoff appearance. He will look to carry on that form when he dons the Blue Tigers uniform. Hyderabad’s success this season also has to do with hosts of young men in their side who lit up the Super League this season, Akash Mishra being one such remarkable find.
The young LB surprised everyone with his pace and overlapping abilities. The 19-year-old was handed a debut against Oman and featured against UAE, and is very likely to start against Qatar too. With the above defensive combination, India has a defensive unit that isn’t afraid to keep the ball and is excellent with distribution, which could help implement Stimac’s philosophy of playing out from the back.
Midfielders: Apuia, Rowllin Borges and Brandon Fernandes
Stimac is likely to play a double pivot in front of his four-man defense to provide defensive cover against a very able Qatari attack. Lalengmawia, or as we fondly call him, Apuia, is another find of this season’s ISL. In his second professional season, the young and stout defensive midfielder from North East was a mammoth presence in the central of the park for the Highlanders.
Tackling, intercepting, clearing, Apuia did it all to help out his defenders, and the lad is decent with his passing, too, averaging more than 36 passes a game with an accuracy of more than 70%. Apuia’s presence in the midfield could give more independence to Rowllin Borges to venture forward. Sergio Lobera handed a free will to Rowllin in Mumbai’s midfield and reaped the benefits. Assured with the ball at his feet and not afraid to run at defenders to create extra space, Rowllin could help in taking control of the midfield and make life easier for Indian defenders.
Brandon Fernandes fit perfectly in this three-man midfield setup. With Apuia doing most of the dirty work and Rowllin picking up the pieces and moving them along, Brandon could get the creative liberty to show off his skills. The driving force behind Goa’s attack this season, Brandon showed during the ISL and the AFC Champions League that he is India’s best hope on the creative front. Inch perfect passing and undaunted while moving forward, Brandon playing in the hole behind India strikers could cause serious concern in the opposition’s defensive ranks.
Strikers: Manvir Singh, Sunil Chhetri and Bipin Singh
India’s best options down the wings at the moment are Manvir and Bipin Singh. Bipin Singh had one of those seasons where he could do nothing wrong. From scoring a hattrick to scoring the winning goal in the final, Bipin did it all. His stellar show in the ISL earned him a national team call-up and he was handed a debut against Oman. In the last three games of a long season for the Manipuri, he will be eager to make an impact and his movement down the wings will add to India’s attacking edge. Manvir, on the other flank, has had a career revival after his move to ATK Mohun Bagan earlier in the season.
The 25-year-old forward has been used mainly on the wings by Habas for the Mariners and Manvir has found new life down the flanks. He had his best goal-scoring season in 2020/21, scoring six goals and was also on the mark in the friendly against Oman. While Manvir has found his goal-scoring boots, he has also developed as a playmaker adding another wing to his plethora of talent.
You can’t complete an Indian lineup without Sunil Chhetri. The 36-year-old is still India’s best bet when it comes to scoring goals. While Bengaluru FC struggled this season in the league, Chhetri was their highest goalscorer with eight goals. Blessed with an excellent footballing brain, Sunil Chhetri will have to lead a young attacking trio on his shoulders and guide the two young men alongside him.