The squad for the tournament was finalised just before the competition, leaving no time for proper training sessions.Additionally, two players, Konsam Chinglensana Singh and Lalchungnunga, were unable to join the team on time due to visa issues. While they are expected to receive “express visas” and join the team soon, they will miss the crucial opening match against China.Head coach Igor Stimac has made the decision to rest senior defender Sandesh Jhingan and star striker Sunil Chhetri for the opening match, aiming to have them fresh for the subsequent matches against Bangladesh and Myanmar. Chhetri, in particular, needed time with his family after recently becoming a father.
Considering the limited preparation time and the tough challenge posed by China, it’s a strategic decision by Stimac to prioritize the matches against Bangladesh and Myanmar, where India may have a better chance of success.
The team’s lack of proper rest and training has forced them to conduct strategy sessions on the aircraft and at the airport. India will face a tough task as underdogs in their opening match against China.
It will have to be seen whether Stimac sticks to what he had said or field Jhingan as defenders Chinglensana and Lalchungnunga will not be available for Tuesday’s match. Already, he is facing the problem of full backs and central midfielders as he lamented on Sunday.
Even otherwise, China are a much stronger side than India at the continental stage, and they will also have the advantage of playing at a 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 candid enough to concede that it would be a tough task for his side against China, more so due to the unprecedented controversy surrounding the picking of the team, that too after getting exemption of eligibility criteria to take part in the Games.
“They have been preparing this team for a long time. Since March this year, they’ve played four tough and quality games against strong opponents, losing three and winning one,” the Croatian said.
“So, it will be tough because they (China) have invested a lot in this team, especially because they are hosting the Asian Games.”
Talking about the players of the opposition team, Stimac said, “Mostly they (China) prefer a 4-4-2 system, which might change to a 3-4-3 occasionally. They have three senior players who are really important to them.
“One striker looks like a tower, scoring a lot of goals in the Chinese Super League. There is also an attacking midfielder, a senior player of great experience.”
On the strategy that he may be employing, Stimac said, “We have to be very clever and see whether we need to invest all our energy (against China) or skip it to keep for the next two matches and try to make it to the knock-out rounds.
“No tournament is a formality for me, neither the players. There is a possibility to qualify from the group, but to do that, some luck needs to be on our side also, and the goal is for the boys to give their best performances of their lives.”
The top two teams from the six groups will make it to the round of 16, with four best-ranked third-placed sides also qualifying.
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 named initially.
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.
Match starts at 5pm.
(With PTI inputs)