The final countdown to the 2019 AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Asian Cup for India well and truly began on Thursday with Stephen Constantine and his men touching down in Abu Dhabi for the continental showpiece.
Having arrived in the UAE with mounting expectations, India’s preparations for the tournament will be put to the test by Asia’s top footballing sides.
Unlike 2011 when Bog Houghton had his core squad removed from their league commitments to focus on a series of national camps, the current players come into the tournament on the back of their ongoing seasons in the I-League and the Indian Super League (ISL).
With Constantine not afforded the luxury that Houghton enjoyed, much of India’s preparations for the Asian Cup will rest on the club form of the players called up to the final squad.
However, when the club form of the India hopefuls is taken into account, it does not paint a confidence-inspiring picture for the team.
The squad is riddled with players who have failed to get going for their respective I-League and Indian Super League (ISL) clubs this season. The problems for India start from their forward line and extend all the way to defence.
Among the strikers, only Sunil Chhetri comes into the tournament with some semblance of good form. The others, like Jeje Lalpekhlua and Balwant Singh have endured lean periods for their respective clubs.
Jeje’s patchy form has coincided with Chennaiyin FC’s abysmal title defence this season with the forward still searching for his first goal. Balwant too, has been equally disappointing for ATK with just one goal to show for in his 12 appearance for Steve Coppell’s men so far.
The others, like Manvir Singh, Sumeet Passi and Farukh Choudhary have had very limited game time with their clubs.
The patchy form of the attackers is mirrored in defence where the entire backline has been plagued with inconsistencies. Sandesh Jhingan has had patches of good form but he has overseen a Kerala Blasters defence which has leaked 20 goals already including six in their most recent clash against Mumbai City.
His central defence partner in Anas Edathodika has only become a Blasters regular in the last five matches and has looked rusty since his introduction to the playing XI after an injury.
With Nishu Kumar and Jerry Lalrinzuala injured, India have problems aplenty in the fullbacks department too with the duo of Pritam Kotal and Narayan Das coming into the tournament after some really poor displays with Delhi Dynamos.
The midfield is not without worries either with youngsters like Anirudh Thapa, Germanpreet Singh and Vinit Rai not in the best of forms. Thapa has failed to step up for Chennaiyin this season with some wayward displays while Germanpreet Singh has not grasped his opportunity either.
At Delhi, Vinit Rai seems to have gone backwards this season after a promising 2017-18 and has fallen down the midfield pecking order.
When it comes to wingers, while Udanta Singh has started to hit the ground running at Bengaluru, Halicharan Narzary and Jackichand Singh have gone off the boil at Kerala after an encouraging start.
When Chhetri was asked if there will be extra burden on him to perform prior to the team’s departure, he replied, “The burden is equally on Jeje (Lalpekhlua), Gurpreet (Singh Sandh), (Anirudh) Thapa, (Sandesh) Jhingan, Udanta (Singh) and others, I think if you ask anyone, they will know their names since they are huge stars.”
The problem for the India is that many of those names have struggled with their respective clubs coming into the tournament.
As such, Constantine and Co will now hope that the final two weeks or so of training can help his men shake off their club woes and that could be a huge ask for the Englishman.