India's bare 2018 calendar a cause of concern
A four-nations tournament in June is likely to be the first major assignment for India in their run-up to the AFC Asian Cup in UAE, slated to start on January 5 next year.
With just one Asian Cup qualifier (vs. Kyrgyzstan on March 27) and the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) championship being the only other assured football pencilled in for India, that might not be enough for them to prepare for the continental tournament, where India will be making their first appearance since 2011.
The draw for the Asian Cup is set to take place in April, and India only need to avoid defeat to Kyrgyzstan to top their qualifying group and hope for a relatively favourable draw.
India's FIFA ranking -- the second factor in determining which pot they go into in the draw -- had gone up to a two-decade high of 96 last July, but has slipped since. India is now ranked 105 due to a lack of international matches since the start of the Indian Super League (ISL) in November.
AIFF general secretary Kushal Das assured ESPN that there will be international matches and tournaments through the year -- other FIFA windows for internationals in this World Cup year fall in September, October and November -- including the four-nations event. The inaugural edition of the tournament, which was held in 2017, featured the national teams of Mauritius and St Kitts & Nevis.
"We are looking at countries from different continents and we are looking at teams either 10 places ahead or lower than us. We could also be looking at a team like New Zealand , which might be 15 places away, but is just as good," said Das, who also mentioned that there will be "at least a month, if not more, of training and practice matches" in the lead up to the Asian Cup.
Compared to India, other Asian nations that have qualified for UAE will all be in action in the first quarter of the year - most of them will be sending their best players to the 16-nation AFC Futsal Championships in Chinese Taipei in February. Vietnam, another qualified team, will proceed from the futsal event to a two-week tour of Germany, where they will play friendlies before they play Jordan in their last AFC Asian Cup qualifier.
The Indian team is on an unbeaten streak of 13 games -- including an unofficial friendly in Bhutan -- but they need to step up the quality of opposition over the next 12 months to prepare for tougher tests, according to Henry Menezes, deputy chairman of the AIFF technical committee. "What we have seen earlier is that we have not played with teams that are good technically or tactically. [Doing] that is very important to measure where we are before we get excited," said Menezes. "In the next one year, we have newer players to see and we have to see how they mix with the experienced players. Do we have the players to replace others in tougher conditions?"
A lesson to be learnt from 2011 is better utilisation of the time between qualifying for the finals and playing in them. Back then, Houghton's team had 29 months between winning the AFC Challenge Cup at home and playing the Asian Cup. They played 15 internationals and won just five of them, though their run-up to Qatar included the 2009 Nehru Cup win in New Delhi. India played Yemen, Iraq, Kuwait and UAE only over the last three months, and lost all four games, conceding 22 goals in them.
Former India captain Shabbir Ali felt India must approach the next 12 months like a typical pre-season, where a club goes progressively from slightly weaker opposition to stronger opponents. "You have to play at least one or two tough matches, so that you get to know your strong and weak points. You just can't play small teams to improve your ranking -- it doesn't serve any purpose," he said.
As of now, the only international football pencilled in for India this year apart from the away match in Kyrgyzstan is the seven-nation SAFF Championship in Bangladesh in September. It is an event India enter as defending champions, but playing the likes of Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Maldives will do little to boost their preparations for the Asian Cup.