Star striker Sunil Chhetri remained doubtful for India’s 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Turkmenistan in Kerala on Tuesday, as the beleaguered home team seeks to end their disappointing campaign on a winning note.
A win on Wednesday does not change much for India as they will still finish at the bottom of Group ‘D’ below tiny Pacific Island nation Guam. It has some significance regarding the team’s chances for qualifying in 2019 Asian Cup.
Whatever the result tomorrow, India will not get a direct entry into the qualification round of the Asian Cup. The Stephen Constantine-coach side will still have the ignominy of featuring in a play-off round to even feature in another qualifying round of the 2019 Asian Cup.
A win against Turkmenistan would put India against a lesser opposition in the play-off, thereby increasing their chance of making it to the qualifiers of the Asian Cup.
India, who have just three points from their lone win against Guam last year, are coming into tomorrow’s Joint Qualification Round 2 match following a 0-4 drubbing away at the hands of continental giants Iran last week.
Though the wounds of the big defeat are still fresh, the team has been boosted by the return of Chhetri, who sweated it out on the field on the eve of the match.
Chief coach Stephen Constantine though was not committal on Chhetri’s participation in the game at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium tomorrow.
In the absence of Chhetri, the country’s all-time highest scorer in the international arena, Jeje Lalpekhlua led the 160th ranked nation at the famous Azadi Stadium in Tehran. They put up a brave fight in the first half, but conceded thrice in the second to suffer another heavy defeat.
Turkmenistan, on 10 points currently, are also out of the 2018 World Cup but have already sealed their progress into the third qualifying round of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup as they are expected to still finish at third in the group even if they lose tomorrow.
It won’t be an easy task for Constantine’s wards as the visitors are entering the game on the back of an impressive 2-1 win over Oman in November last year and will be the favourites for tomorrow’s match after defeating India by the same score-line in the first leg in September.
India have welcomed their captain Chhetri back into the squad after missed out against Iran due to a groin injury sustained while playing for Bengaluru FC in the I-League.
The striker, even if he starts, is unlikely to feature for the entire 90 minutes. Meanwhile, Eugeneson Lyngdoh is still sidelined with a calf injury.
“We will give our cent percent on the pitch as always and even though Turkmenistan are difficult opponents we will play to win,” Constantine said.
As part of his philosophy Constantine has handed debuts to many young talents of Indian football in recent months — the latest being the 19-year old Udanta Singh against Iran.
“The door to the national team is open to anybody and everybody if they can help the squad, work hard and contribute to it. Everybody is welcome as long as they do what is required of them.
“I will never stop looking for players as you cannot build a Team in one year. It is a process in continuation and we have more or less achieved the targets that we had set out in the beginning. My aim is to build something that will last for 3 or 4 years.”
Reflecting on India’s World Cup qualifying campaign so far Constantine quipped: “As a Team we have learnt a lot in the Qualifiers. We played well against Oman, but the result did not sway in our favour. We cannot do something about where we are but can only keep our focus to the match at hand. And playing in India for India is motivation enough for the Players to perform.”
Turkmenisatn chief coach Amangylyc Kocumow said: “India are a very good and fast team with very good players. We are expecting a tough clash against them.”
Eight group winners of the Joint Qualification Round will advance to the third round of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers, as well as straight to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in United Arab Emirates, along with the four best runners-up.
The other four runners-up will progress to the third round of qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup, along with all the third-placed teams and the four best fourth-placed teams.
Finally, the remaining sides will have to negotiate past two rounds of playoffs to grab the final eight spots in the AFC Asian Cup third qualifying round.