There’s an uncanny sense of anticipation for India’s friendly fixture against Puerto Rico. It’s not often that the national team gets to play against higher-ranked opponents. Yet, this time around, the excitement stems more from what lies beyond the tie on Saturday. India is scheduled to play in the third round of the Asian Cup qualifiers in March next year and Saturday’s match is seen as the first step towards preparation for the continental event.
As such, playing against the higher ranked Puerto Rican outfit, placed 114th in the world, becomes all the more important. “I’d rather the team lose 4-0 to Iran than win 5-0 against Bhutan. We have to keep improving and working on our mistakes, and we can only do that by playing bigger teams,” asserts national coach Stephen Constantine.
Although India are ranked 38 places below Puerto Rico, they are expected to have an upper hand as the visitors are under-prepared for the match. Just four days ahead of the game at the Andheri Sports Complex in Mumbai, Puerto Rico hosted, and lost 1-0 to, arch rivals Dominican Republic. Subsequently, the islanders opted to delay their 14,000 km journey to the point that they would arrive at the subcontinent just a day ahead of the match – hence forgoing any practice session they might have planned earlier to help the team adjust to the new conditions.
It’s assumed that the team may suffer from travel fatigue to a certain degree, yet they still will be keen to employ their proven fluidic one-touch style of play. “It’s not exactly a typical South American style because their build-up play is slow. But they like to keep the ball with them and pass it around. They’re also dangerous inside the box because of that passing movement,” says Constantine. The most recent example was a goal they scored in the 3-1 loss to the United States in May. “That one goal came after a series of first-touch passes in the box,” he adds.
The visitor’s key attackers Jorge Rivera, Joseph Marrero and all-time leading goalscorer Hector Ramos have not made the journey to India. As a result, the visitors will be forced to field a depleted frontline – an aspect that will well suit India. Bolstered by the form of striker Jeje Lalpekhlua, who scored thrice against Laos during India’s 7-1 aggregate victory during the preliminary Asian Cup qualifying round in June, Constantine is assertive that the hosts will lineup with an attacking mindset.
Nonetheless, despite Puerto Rico fielding a depleted side, the hosts are still wary of the 1-0 loss against an unfancied Guam team last year. Much like the visitors in Mumbai, Guam is a US territory that recruited most of its players from American clubs. In fact, Puerto Rico hosts a football club, Puerto Rico FC, which plays its professional games in the second division of the US league – the North American Soccer League. Similarly, the other players too are exposed to higher brands of football.
Yet, Constantine is confident that his players have themselves reached a higher level. He explains how each position in the national squad is being competed for by more than one player. “It’s a good kind of problem to have,,” he adds. Strategic steps have been taken to improve the young team that makes up the national team during this transitional phase.
The coach, in fact, asserts that the current team will form the core of the Indian squad for the next five years. Within the lineup, a new captain too has been appointed, with India’s only ever player to play in a top flight European game, and Europa Cup match, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu taking over the captain’s armband from Sunil Chhetri. A step towards a long-term plan.