Though all players in the Indian squad are now done with their club commitments and free to join the national camp in Mumbai, head coach Stephen Constantine has not taken the timing of the recent Federation Cup well. While the camp officially started on May 20, the tournament continued till a day later.
“For me, the Federation Cup could not have come at a worse time,” Constantine says. “I had asked for the tournament to be a knockout one, but it didn’t happen this time. Then you look at players playing three games in five days in 45 degrees, so there’s going to be a problem.”
Since last October, the Indian football calendar has been cramped with the Indian Super League, followed by the I-League and now the Federation Cup – all organised without suitable breaks in between. Subsequently, the national camp ahead of the 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers has had to compromise on training sessions and focus on recovery at its beginning.
“According to the scientific data we collect, players are at their best physical condition 10 days after they’re at the camp. We would have liked the players to have had a break and come fresh. But we’ve always faced this problem,” Constantine says. Crucially, ahead of the second group stage match against the Kyrgyz Republic in Bangalore, team captain and the country’s leading goalscorer Sunil Chhetri remains a doubt, owing to a Grade 1 hamstring tear he suffered during the Federation Cup. Chhetri’s absence
The 32-year-old has been the dominant figure in the Indian team for the last few years, even scoring the winner in the opening qualification fixture in Myanmar. “When it comes to Sunil, there needs to be a reason for me to not pick him. There’s going to be a moment when we will be without Sunil eventually, but as long as he’s doing the work we want him to do and he’s fit, he will be a part of my team,” says Constantine, who had given Chhetri his senior team debut back in 2005. “For the moment, he’s out of the friendly against Nepal, but for the Kyrgyz match we will have to assess his progress.”
Just as they did before the opener against Myanmar, the Blue Tigers will play a friendly to evaluate player form and determine the starting line-up for the group stage clash to follow. They will line up against Nepal in an exhibition tie at the Andheri Sports Complex a week before playing the Kyrgyz Republic. The original plan, however, was to play the friendly against Lebanon, only for the West Asian outfit to back out at the last minute due to visa issues. “I would have wanted to have played one of the former Soviet countries to get a better idea about the Kyrgyz players, but Lebanon is a good team too. The important thing is we need games, and Nepal has been a thorn in our side for many years. They will run and fight. So it will be a good test for us,” says the 54-year-old coach.
One of the points of interest for Constantine in the friendly against Nepal will be if his young team is capable of playing and earning a result without its instrumental skipper. The last time India qualified for the marquee continental tournament was back in 2011, with Chhetri playing an important role in securing a berth for the country. The striker netted a hat-trick against Tajikistan in the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup, a win that brought a spot in the Asian Cup.
The game against Kyrgyz Republic is the next hurdle towards securing qualification for the 2019 edition – India failed to qualify in 2015. And Constantine has started weighing up his options. “We’ve got a good nucleus of players now, and two-three players for each position. The Kyrgyz team is a big side, very physical and will be difficult at set plays,” says the coach. “They are a tough team, but so are we.”