Set to play their opening match without any training session and proper rest after the last-minute announcement of the squad, India will be the clear underdogs against formidable China in their Asian Games group game in Hangzhou on Tuesday. India were able to stitch a rag-tag final squad only on Friday and the team left for China on Sunday, leaving no time for the players to even have a training session together. Moreover, two players — defenders Konsam Chinglensana Singh and Lalchungnunga — out of the 22 players picked will join later as their visas were not ready. The Indian contingent’s chef de mission Bhupinder Singh Bajwa has, however, said that the duo will get their ‘express visas’ in a day or two and they will join the team.
In any case, the duo will not be available for the Group A match against China on Tuesday and that will be a blow for India. Also head coach Igor Stimac said on Sunday that senior defender Sandesh Jhingan and talismanic striker Sunil Chhetri will not play the opening match to save them for the later two matches.
Chhetri has started training just a couple of weeks ago as he needed time with his family after becoming a father recently.
Stimac’s move is understandable as India have more chance to win against Bangladesh (September 21) and Myanmar (September 24) than against China, and considering that the team will take on the hosts without proper rest and training. The head coach was forced to have strategy sessions inside the aircraft and at the airport.
It will have to be seen whether Stimac sticks to what he had said or field Jhingan as defenders Chinglensana and Lalchungnunga will not be available for Tuesday’s match. Already, he is facing the problem of full backs and central midfielders as he lamented on Sunday.
Even otherwise, China are a much stronger side than India at the continental stage, and they will also have the advantage of playing at a familiar surroundings at the Huanglong Sports Center Stadium. For India, on the other hand, their first outdoor activity could be the match.
The last time the two countries met in the Asian Games was in the 2002 edition in Busan, Korea, where India lost 0-2. The then Indian team had the likes of Bhaichung Bhutia, Shanmugam Venkatesh, Jo Paul Ancheri, Renedy Singh and current assistant coach Mahesh Gawli.
Stimac was candid enough to concede that it would be a tough task for his side against China, more so due to the unprecedented controversy surrounding the picking of the team, that too after getting exemption of eligibility criteria to take part in the Games.
“They have been preparing this team for a long time. Since March this year, they’ve played four tough and quality games against strong opponents, losing three and winning one,” the Croatian said.
“So, it will be tough because they (China) have invested a lot in this team, especially because they are hosting the Asian Games.” Talking about the players of the opposition team, Stimac said, “Mostly they (China) prefer a 4-4-2 system, which might change to a 3-4-3 occasionally. They have three senior players who are really important to them.
“One striker looks like a tower, scoring a lot of goals in the Chinese Super League. There is also an attacking midfielder, a senior player of great experience.” On the strategy that he may be employing, Stimac said, “We have to be very clever and see whether we need to invest all our energy (against China) or skip it to keep for the next two matches and try to make it to the knock-out rounds.
“No tournament is a formality for me, neither the players. There is a possibility to qualify from the group, but to do that, some luck needs to be on our side also, and the goal is for the boys to give their best performances of their lives.” The top two teams from the six groups will make it to the round of 16, with four best-ranked third-placed sides also qualifying.
Thirteen players out of the initial 22 were not released by their respective Indian Super League clubs, including Jhingan and first-choice goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. A 17-member team with Chhetri as the only notable face was named initially.
On Friday, the AIFF announced a revised squad of 22 after hectic parleys with Jhingan in it, besides two more senior players in Chinglensana and Lalchungnunga.