After days of confusion over the composition of the squad and whether the national team coach would accompany it to Hangzhou, the All India Football Federation was able to prise players like Sandesh Jhingan and Chinglensana Singh away from their clubs to make up a customary 22-member squad for the Asian Games.
The AIFF was also able to confirm that head coach Igor Stimac would indeed be heading to China with the players after initially being reluctant to go with the hastily-assembled 17-member squad led by Sunil Chhetri that had been announced earlier.
The federation also announced that East Bengal attacker Naorem Mahesh Singh will undergo a medical test before any decision to induct him into the squad will be taken. All this has only added to the uncertainty with India’s opening group game against China scheduled for Tuesday.
“It’s a wonderful development that some experienced players have been added to the Asian Games squad, who will certainly help the cause of the team. I’m thankful to FSDL (Football Sports Development Limited) and AIFF for making it happen. Whoever represents India, together we will be honoured to defend the flag,” Stimac told a website.
The initial squad released had just 17 players including only two specialist defenders. By adding Jhingan – a regular senior for the national team – and Chinglensana who was also a regular in the national set-up until recently, the Indian team shores up the centre of its defence, an area that looked heavily compromised earlier. The addition of Chinglensana gives the Manipuri defender valuable minutes to challenge the established central defensive partnership of Jhingan and Anwar Ali ahead of the World Cup qualifiers and the Asian Cup in January.
Could’ve done better
Former Shillong Lajong, Bengaluru FC and Pune City coach Pradhyum Reddy said that some foresight during the off-season regarding the Asian Games squad may have brought together a better-prepared outfit. “They could have put an U23 team together during the off-season and held a camp for them knowing this tournament was coming. They could have been more proactive rather than the way they’ve gone about it.”
With the central defence somewhat plugged, it’s the flanks and the midfield that still remain concerns. “It’s not an ideal situation. You want players for the positions they need to play in. If we start with a broader base and identify three-four players over every position, we wouldn’t be in this situation. It’s not as if most U23 players are starting for the ISL team. Teams might have let go of players but the problem is that these players don’t play in those positions for their club that they would for the national team,” said Reddy.
In central midfield, India will most likely have to play Amarjit Singh Kiyam, a player many would remember from the 2017 FIFA U17 World Cup squad. Contracted to East Bengal, Kiyam was part of their B side which was playing in I-League 2, India’s third division. Last season, he played under 500 minutes of football with 10 of those minutes coming in an Indian Super League game. Many of Stimac’s targets were kept by ISL clubs either for the league or the AFC Champions League or AFC Cup.
Even though Stimac’s demand to get senior players like Sunil Chhetri and Jhingan has been granted, managing their time will mean that the two Indian stalwarts will not be on the pitch for every minute, especially considering India fly in a day before their match against China U23 and just 48 hours later are supposed to play Bangladesh U23s.
In such a scenario, there will be a need to keep them fresh keeping in mind the World Cup qualifiers in November and the Asian Cup at the start of 2024 – two competitions which India needs to prioritise.