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Why you should care about the Under-16 Championships

The four semi-finalists from the U-16 Championships will qualify for the 2019 U17 World Cup in Peru.
The four semi-finalists from the U-16 Championships will qualify for the 2019 U17 World Cup in Peru.

Almost a year since India's FIFA debut at the U-17 World Cup, their successors will eye qualification for the 2019 edition in Peru, when they start their AFC U-16 Championships campaign against Vietnam in Kuala Lumpur on Friday.

What's at stake?

The other two teams in India's Group C are 2016 AFC U-16 runners-up Iran and Indonesia, and India must finish in the top four of the 16-team tournament to qualify as one of the Asian Football Confederation teams for the U-17 World Cup next year.

India played the last U-17 World Cup as hosts, and qualification for Peru 2019 would be a first for any Indian team to a FIFA event.

How has their recent form been?

Under head coach Bibiano Fernandes, India won a four-nation tournament in Serbia in May, held North Korea to a draw in China in July, beat Jordan, Yemen and Iraq in the WAFF invitational tournament in Jordan the following month, and came to Malaysia on the back of a tour of Turkey where they beat a Cameroon team 2-1 before beating a junior side of Turkish club Beskitas 5-1.

Since qualifying for Malaysia in last September, India have won 12 of their 24 friendlies. This has included wins against Asian nations like Iraq, Malaysia, Jordan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Chinese Taipei. What has stood out in these matches is their consistent goal-scoring -- 45 scored, and only five played without having scored.

Who are India's key players?

India's best players are those operating in the final third. Striker-turned-winger Vikram Pratap Singh has worked up a good partnership with forwards Rohit Danu and Ridge D'Mello, while midfielder Givson Singh has also been an important component of the attack. Vikram scored a hat-trick in India's 4-0 win against Jordan in Amman -- while defender Lalrokima can also pop up with goals, as he did in the 93rd minute against Iraq in the same tournament.

If India make the knockout stage, they are likely to face any one of Australia, South Korea or Iraq in the quarterfinals and the ability to find goals would be crucial.

What happened last time?

India, who have reached the quarters only once in 2002, hosted the last edition in Goa two years ago. They fought hard with UAE and Saudi Arabia, losing 3-2 to the former and holding the latter 3-3 with a last-gasp penalty, before losing 3-0 to Iran, who will start favourites in their group yet again.

Indonesia are appearing in the biennial event for the first time since 2010, but became ASEAN champions for the first time in this age group in Malaysia earlier this year. Vietnam, who themselves made their first senior final in the same region in 2016, also made the quarters of the 2016 AFC U-16 in India, beating Australia along the way.

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