India’s most valuable trump-cards at the AFC Asian Cup
The Indian national football team will begin its acid test when they kickstart their AFC Asian Cup campaign in Abu Dhabi on Sunday. They will be participating in the biggest tournament in the continent for just the fourth time in their history. The Blues Tigers thus have a real task on their hands after being drawn alongside hosts UAE, Bahrain and Thailand in Group A. Since they begin with lower-ranked Thailand, Stephen Constantine’s men have the ideal opportunity to win all three points and start positively. Having said that, even though they are packed with talent all over the pitch, the Blues Tigers will still rely on a few familiar names to guide them in the middle east.
India’s biggest hope going forward, Bengaluru FC striker Sunil Chhetri will need to be at his usual best if the Blue Tigers harbour any desires of making it through to the next round. Although 34, the electric Chhetri is still as effective and dangerous as he was a decade ago with his numbers in the current Hero Indian Super League (ISL) campaign attesting that. However, over-reliance on the star striker could mean that opposition defences will look to isolate him and deprive India of their biggest attacking asset.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu
Chhetri’s Bengaluru FC teammate Gurpreet has become a pivotal part of the team courtesy of numerous game-changing displays in the not so recent past. Tall, agile and good with his feet, Gurpreet is very much a goalkeeper of the modern game and looks certain to start in most, if not all, of India’s matches at the showpiece tournament. The Bengaluru no.1 also has momentum on his side after conceding the least goals in the first half of Hero ISL 2018-19.
Still only 22, Udanta is another one of those in-form Bengaluru FC stars Constantine will have high hopes from at the AFC Asian Cup. While playing on the right-wing, the youngster has recently showcased increased productivity besides also helping his fullbacks whenever called upon. Furthermore, Bengaluru’s style-of-play is not-so-dissimilar to the way Constantine wants to operate, making Udanta an almost automatic selection. With Chhetri around to guide him, Udanta could well be in for a career-defining tournament.
Part of an all-action Blue Tigers midfield, Halder possesses everything Constantine looks for in a midfielder: strong, dominant and good with the ball. Part of an ATK side that progressed slowly through the first half of Hero ISL 2018-19, Halder has mastered the art of shielding his defenders and offers very little in terms of space to opposition midfielders. A healthy passing accuracy close to 70% during that period adds further gloss to the performances he has put in playing in a very specific role. The upcoming tournament, however, is an entirely different ballgame and whether Halder is able to replicate those club performances for the country remains to be seen.
Coming up against the best attackers from all over Asia will be a stiff challenge to Constantine’s defence, which is led by Kerala Blasters FC’s Jhingan. Hero ISL's first ever Emerging Player of the Season plays at the heart of the defence and has become a real leader in the team by setting an example through his unparalleled commitment to the side. Jhingan’s versatility is also something that will encourage Constantine as it gives him the opportunity to tinker with his troops.