Set to play their opening match without training and proper rest after the last-minute squad announcement, India will be the clear underdogs against formidable China in their Asian Games group match in Hangzhou on Tuesday. India was only able to put together a final ragtag squad on Friday and the team left for China on Sunday, leaving no time for the players to train together at all. Also, two players — defenders Konsam Chinglensana Singh and Lalchungnunga — out of the 22 selected players will join later as their visas were not ready. However, Indian contingent chief de mission Bhupinder Singh Bajwa has said that the duo will get their ‘express visa’ in a day or two and they will join the team.
In any case, the duo will not be available for the Group A match against China on Tuesday and that will be a blow for India. Also, head coach Igor Stimac said on Sunday that senior defender Sandesh Jhingan and talismanic forward Sunil Chhetri will not play the opening game to save them for the later two matches.
Chhetri has started training a few weeks ago as he needed time with his family after becoming a father recently.
Stimac’s move is understandable as India have more chances to win against Bangladesh (September 21) and Myanmar (September 24) than against China and considering the team will take on the hosts without proper rest and training. The head coach was forced to have strategy sessions inside the plane and at the airport.
It remains to be seen whether Stimac sticks to what he had said or whether Jhingan is on the sidelines as defenders Chinglensana and Lalchungnunga will not be available for Tuesday’s game. Already he faces the problem of full-backs and central midfielders, which he lamented on Sunday.
Even otherwise, China is a much stronger side than India on the continental stage and they will also have the advantage of playing in familiar surroundings at the Huanglong Sports Center Stadium. For India, on the other hand, their first outdoor activity could be the match.
The last time the two countries met in the Asian Games was in the 2002 edition in Busan, Korea, where India lost 0-2. The then Indian team had the likes of Bhaichung Bhutia, Shanmugam Venkatesh, Jo Paul Ancheri, Renedy Singh and current assistant coach Mahesh Gawli.
Stimac was honest enough to admit that it would be a tough task for his side against China, more so because of the unprecedented controversy surrounding the selection of the team that too after being exempted from eligibility criteria to participate in the Games .
“They have been preparing this team for a long time. Since March this year, they have played four tough and quality matches against strong opponents, losing three and winning one,” the Croatian said.
“So it will be difficult because they (China) have invested a lot in this team, especially because they are hosting the Asian Games.” Speaking about the players from the opposing team, Stimac said: “Mostly they (China) prefer a 4-4-2 system which can occasionally change to a 3-4-3. They have three senior players who are really important to them.
“A striker looks like a tower that scores a lot of goals in the Chinese Super League. There is also an attacking midfielder, a senior player with a lot of experience.” Regarding the strategy he might use, Stimac said: “We have to be very smart and see if we should invest all our energy (against China) or skip it to keep in the next two games and try to get the knock -out rounds.
“No tournament is a formality for me, nor for the players. There is an opportunity to qualify from the group, but to do that we also need some luck on our side and the aim is for the boys to give their best performances of their lives.” The two best teams from the six groups advance to the round of 16, where four best-placed third-placed teams also qualify.
Thirteen players out of the initial 22 were not released by their respective Indian Super League clubs, including Jhingan and first-choice goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. A 17-member team with Chhetri as the only notable face was initially named.
On Friday, the AIFF announced a revised squad of 22 after hectic parleys with Jhingan in it, besides two more senior players in Chinglensana and Lalchungnunga.
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