With less than three months to go for the AFC U-16 Championship which will be held in Malaysia between 20th September and 7th October this year, the India U-16 side looks to be on the right track.
Head coach Goa-born Bibiano Fernandes, who started his journey with the India U-14 side, has earned praise for his work with the U-16 team. The team, despite losing 0-1 to the U-17 side of China and 1-3 to Thailand U-16 in their last two matches of the ongoing four-nation tournament, are a talented bunch of youngsters who seem to relish difficult challenges.
It took a really good attacking foray forward and a terrific finish from a tight angle by Chinese frontline to break down the Indian defence in the first game of the four-nation tournament being held in Weinan City. Despite going into the break trailing by a solitary goal, the Colts were able to bounce back and consistently create chances in the second half and even hit the woodwork on one occasion.
Against Thailand, India were dealt a blow at the stroke of half-time and went into the break trailing by a goal. They bounced back immediately through Vikram Pratap Singh's equalizer in the 48th minute and waged a well-planned war against a strong Thailand unit for the entirety of the second half.
Thailand were helped by defensive lapses by India in the final three minutes of the game. The opponents scored two goals in the final three minutes of normal time to end the contest 1-3.
A little more efficiency in the final third in both matches would have given India U-16 a creditable 13th win in 19 matches since the start of the 2017 SAFF U-15 Cup. Thursday's loss is only their fifth defeat since then. The U-16s' record under Bibiano Fernandes is commendable and bodes well for the upcoming AFC U-16 Championship where they are drawn against Indonesia, Vietnam and 2016 runners-up Iran.
Extensive scouting had gone into the make-up of U16 squad, ensuring there is a lot of talent in the team.
The team landed the SAFF U-15 title in 2017 by going the entire tournament unbeaten and then later qualified for the AFC U-16 tournament as the best second-placed team. Below India on that list were Oman, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Afghanistan.
In 2018, the U-16 team has been impressive on their exposure tours. They won all three of their games in Hong Kong in March before losing to the United States and Norway in Spain in April.
Despite the defeats, there were a lot of positives to take away from their performances and the Indian Colts made their comeback in Serbia where they won a four-nation tournament involving Jordan, Serbia and Tajikistan.
Without resting on their 'friendly' laurels. the U-16 side departed for Weinan City in China for another four-nation tournament as part of the final leg of preparations ahead of the AFC U-16 finals. The team will now face DPR Korea ahead of their crucial AFC group games against Vietnam, Iran and Indonesia.
As Bibiano puts it, "The boys are growing in the right direction, but we’ve got a long way to go. There are so many aspects on which we need to improve tactically. These exposure tours are making the boys more confident and capable."
The target right now is the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Peru. The top four teams from the 2018 AFC U-16 Championship will seal their place in the 2019 U-17 World Cup as AFC representatives. India U-16's best record in AFC tournaments till date is a quarter-final finish in 2002. Can Bibiano and his boys better that?