History beckons as the India U-16 football team are just a step away from qualifying for a FIFA Under-17 World Cup on merit. But before the nation erupts in jubilation, the Indian team must get the better of Asian giants South Korea on Monday at the MBPJ Stadium, Malaysia.
No doubt that the task at hand is Herculean in stature, but if the team can stick can focus on their strengths and most importantly not get overwhelmed by the gravity of the occasion; they have the potential to script a memorable win.
India coach Bibiano Fernandes acknowledged South Korea's technical superiority over India in the pre-match press conference as he knows that his opponents are miles ahead in quality compared to his own troops.
But this team has proved its mettle as they are yet to concede a goal in the tournament even after taking on the likes of Iran and Indonesia. The backline comprising of Thoiba, Shabas Ahammed, Gurkirat Singh and Bikash Yumnam have shown great determination and put in impressive shifts to deny space to opposition attackers.
Goalkeeper Niraj Kumar has also been in fine form as he is yet to be wrong-footed under the sticks. His penalty save against Iran on the 75th minute helped India snatch a crucial point which has only boosted his confidence.
On the other hand, South Korea has put in the best performance in the group stages among the 16 participating nations. Apart from India, they are the only team who has managed to keep a clean sheet in each of their games. They have been equally prolific in the attacking third as they pumped in 12 goals in three matches, which includes a 7-0 rout against Afghanistan.
This crop of players have been playing together for five years under the Golden Age Programme of the South Korean Football federation and it is natural that these boys would be able to express themselves better.
South Korea’s strength lies in its three aggressive midfielders in the form of Seo Jae-min, Yoon Seok Joo and Kim Dong Jyun. The onus will be on Ravi Rana, Givson Singh and Ricky Shabong to hold their ground in the centre of the park and deny any free space to the opposition.
Given that the team is just a step away from making history, it is time to play sensible and effective football rather than focus on keeping possession against technically superior players. India has not fared well in front of goal and apart from a solitary strike from the spot by skipper Vikram Pratap Singh.
Against an opponent which boasts of players who are better in keeping the ball than the Indians and in every position, it will be prudent to focus more on the defensive duties and look to get a clean sheet. At the end of 90 minutes, there is no regulation of playing another 30 minutes of extra time as the game would go straight into penalties.
It must be remembered that this Indian team have been crisscrossing the world and plying their trade against mightier opponents to improve their skill-set. On most occasions, they fought well and have not been completely outclassed. They have drawn against Serbia at their own backyard and even went on to lift silverware in that four-nation tournament, getting the better of Jordan and Tajikistan.
This quarterfinal clash has all the makings of a duel between David and Goliath.
Whether India gets the dream result or not, one thing fans can be confident about is that this set of players will certainly compete and not give in easily.