India look to build on early promise under Igor Stimac at Intercontinental Cup
India kick-off the 2019 Intercontinental Cup on July 7 with a backdrop of mass confusion reigning over the domestic football scene. While all eyes are on the AIFF Executive Committee meeting scheduled for July 9, the national team will hope to keep that aside and build on the hints of promise shown early on under new manager Igor Stimac.
What is this tournament? Who is playing?
The Intercontinental Cup was introduced last year by the AIFF as part of its plan to ensure the national team participates in competitive internationals regularly. While the 2018 edition -- played against Kenya, New Zealand, and Chinese Taipei, and won by India -- was held keeping in mind the Asia Cup, this year's is ostensibly to prime the team for the FIFA World Cup qualifiers starting in September 2019.
This year, nomenclature of tournament notwithstanding, all participating nations are Asian, with Syria (FIFA rank - 85), Tajikistan (FIFA rank - 120) and DPR Korea (FIFA rank - 122) joining India (FIFA rank - 101) in Ahmedabad's TransStadia Arena.
Like last year, all the teams will play each other in a round-robin phase, and the top two will meet in the final.
What is the takeaway from the squad selection?
While the spine of the team essentially remains the same from the 23-man squad picked for the King's Cup tournament held earlier last month, a few changes have the possibility of raising eyebrows.
Notable inclusions - Anas Edathodika, Narender Gahlot, Mandar Rao Dessai, Jobby Justin, Rowllin Borges
Notable exclusions - Michael Soosairaj, Raynier Fernandes, Jackichand Singh, Balwant Singh
Anas had announced he was hanging up his boots earlier this year, after the heartbreak of limping out of India's final Asia Cup game, but came out of retirement to make himself available upon Stimac's request.
This may have been triggered by what Stimac saw with Sandesh Jhingan in the King's Cup. The one 'un-droppable' defender in the Indian set-up, Jhingan seemed to struggle alongside Rahul Bheke and Adil Khan in the two matches in Thailand. The shakiness of an untested central defensive pairing obviously troubles Stimac and hence the need for a partner Jhingan is comfortable with. He's going with the short-term fix over the long in this case.
The Full Squad:
Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh, Kamaljit Singh.
Defenders: Pritam Kotal, Rahul Bheke, Sandesh Jhingan, Adil Khan, Anas Edathodika, Narender Gahlot, Subhasish Bose, Jerry Lalrinzuala.
Midfielders: Udanta Singh, Brandon Fernandes, Anirudh Thapa, Pronay Halder, Rowllin Borges, Vinit Rai, Sahal Abdul, Amarjit Singh, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Mandar Rao Desai.
Forwards: Jobby Justin, Sunil Chhetri, Farukh Choudhary, Manvir Singh.
Dropping Raynier Fernandes is a disappointment. Fernandes excelled in midfield when given the opportunity in the King's Cup and earned high praise from the coach at the time. Replacing him in the central midfielder slot is a favourite of the old regime, Rowllin Borges.
Elsewhere, it will be interesting to see if Mandar Rao Dessai plays in his converted left-back role (as he does for his club FC Goa) or if he returns as a winger, and a direct replacement for club teammate Jackichand Singh. It is also evident that Stimac believes one eccentric wide forward per squad is the limit, hence Jobby Justin replaces Michael Soosairaj - hopefully Justin gets a little more playing time than Soosairaj did in Thailand.
Player(s) to watch out for - The two who impressed the most last time around; central midfielders Amarjit Singh (18) and Sahal Abdul Samad (22).
What can we expect?
There really was nothing in the way India played the King's Cup to indicate what Stimac's style of play is. At times, India looked to build from the back, at times, they pressed high, at times, they set up a low-block and tried the good ol' fashioned thump-it-in-front-of-Udanta-and-let-him-run strategy. Besides, with Stimac sticking to his promise of letting everyone who travelled play a few minutes, there really wasn't much time for anything concrete to develop.
This longer tournament will hopefully provide a sense of what's to come for the team under the new management.
Stimac's tendency to constantly tinker with his playing XIs, formations and strategies alienated players, fans, and experts alike during his stint as manager of Croatia and it will interesting to see if he continues in the same vein here (and quite disheartening if he does).
When are India's fixtures?
India v Tajikistan - July 7
India v DPR Korea - July 13
India v Syria - July 16
Final - July 18.
All matches to be held at 8 PM IST and to be broadcast on the Star network. You can also follow live coverage right here on ESPN.in.