India on right track, but mind the potholes
Let's be honest, this Indian team has flaws.
The numbers are impressive but they don't tell the entire story. India have huffed, puffed, got the 'job done', but there are loopholes. Loopholes that, if not addressed, could fade the shining light. Based on the two Asian Cup qualifiers, both 1-0 wins, here are a few concerns Constantine would need to address before India take the pitch next against Macau on September 5.
India's biggest weakness lies in midfield. In both games - Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan - they were left exposed, beaten for pace and it was the defence, chiefly Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, that had to bail them out.
In the Myanmar game, a 4-1-3-2 with Rowllin Borges as the holding midfielder was going well, until the pace of the Myanmar midfield created inroads. Myanmar pressed hard, which saw the trio of Sunil Chhetri, Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Jackichand Singh failing to retain the ball as they looked to stitch attacks. Myanmar created the better chances, and it was the missed opportunities that were the difference.
Against Kyrgyzstan, the 4-4-2 was similarly exposed. Kyrgyzstan dominated the first 45 minutes, mainly because Jackichand on the right wing and the duo of Rowllin and Eugeneson in the middle were usually tracking back after losing possession. The formation didn't quite provide the solidarity in midfield and India relied on long balls to get their attacking mojo together. They need a presence in the middle that does the simple yet effective job of keeping the ball while being vary of the opposition while not having it.
The new partnership of Sandesh Jhinghan and Anas Edathodika have defended with their hearts on their sleeves, but goalkeeper Sandhu was called into action far too many times for his liking against Kyrgyzstan. The centre backs were opened up too easily on several occasions, and on another day, the scoreline would have told a different story.
The problem with Anas and Jhinghan is that they're too similar -full throttle, going hard into tackles and never shying away from a challenge. The best centre-back pairings often complement each other -- a calm, smart defender who relies on anticipation and positioning, can work well alongside a hard and fearless tackler.
The partnership is only three matches old and the indecision is still fresh. They are getting the job done by putting their body on the line. But recklessness and overenthusiasm in committing a tackle may not go well on another day.
If not Sunil Chhetri, who?
Jeje Lalpekhlua has a good scoring record, but in both the qualifiers, except for the chipped assist for Chhetri's winner, the forward wasn't up to the mark. Robin Singh, the other option, also isn't the ideal number nine. Both hold the ball well, have good headers and keep the ball moving in and around the penalty area, but are they creating enough chances? Do Jeje and Robin create a fear in the opposition? I'm not so sure.
Chhetri is the trump card in attack, always taking India home, the savior, India's Batman. But where is Robin?
In the qualifiers, Constantine has so far chosen familiarity over form.
Jackichand Singh, Narayan Das, Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Jeje Lalpekhlua - all in the starting XI - have had ordinary seasons. Will India be better off with in-form players? They have plenty to choose from -- Bikash Jairu could replace Jackichand, Jerry Lalrinzuala could replace Narayan, Milan Singh could partner Rowllin instead of Lyngdoh, while Daniel Lalhlimpuia, who plays alongside Chhetri at club level could replace Jeje.
The argument against this would be inexperience at the international stage. But these players have had a long season under their belt and might fit in seamlessly alongside the veterans. Constantine is taking the easier route with favourable results giving him that confidence, but is he missing a trick by not playing the players in form?
"We got one goal, I'll take that any day," Constantine said after the Kyrgyzstan game. The results have been positive, but India's performances have been far from flawless. Constantine would do well to fix the issues before it's too late.