From where we started – Where India stand after Stephen Constantine’s second coming

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Image Courtesy: © AIFF

From where we started – Where India stand after Stephen Constantine’s second coming

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Ayesha d'Souza


When Stephen Constantine was appointed as the head coach of the Indian national football team in early February 2015, the British coach had marked his realistic targets - to make a good fist of the 2018 World Cup campaign and aim for qualification to the 2019 Asian Cup. That, along with the SAFF Cup triumph, would have been a perfect backdrop for Constantine’s plans in the coming future.

The Indian national team did won the SAFF Championship in Trivandrum earlier this year, but the World Cup qualifying campaign never took off, and the hopes of qualification for the Asian Cup hang by a thread, after India produced a listless display and lost 1-2 against Turkmenistan in their last group match, accumulating a mere 3 points out of a possible 24.

The draw for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers playoff round will be held on April 7, and it is more or less slated to decide the future of Stephen Constantine, wherein India can face Yemen in a worst case scenario.

With results not going in Constantine’s favour and fans increasingly voicing their anger, two matches – home and away – in the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers playoff round can very well turn out to be Constantine’s last.

Although Constantine has stressed on the development of youth and expanding the pool of players, it still remains uncertain whether his second coming will reap as much profits for India as his first. After all, losing to tiny Guam grabbed headlines around the world, much to the disappointment of almost every Indian football fan.

With 23 players debuting in his tenure thus far, one can perhaps argue that Constantine is trying to test young Indian talents in the national team, or perhaps, one can argue that the British coach is still far away from his best starting XI, let alone his best squad of 23. For any national team coach the time to manoeuvre his starting XI is scarce. Hence the need to identify the best starting XI not only safeguards the team from any further experiment, but also helps the coach to work on his best XI tactically and technically. For Constantine, these facts seldom matter as he regularly shuffles his centre-back pairing, the centre midfield pairing and the attacking trio as well, snatching the foundations of a well-oiled Indian team, which we may never be able to see.

Hence, there was little surprise when Cavin Lobo and Jeje failed to strike a chord in India’s penultimate World Cup qualifying match, and the Indian attack force failed to register a single shot on target in the second half of that match. This is not the first time that echoes of lack of coordination have been observed in the Indian squad. In the matches against Guam (away), Iran (home) and Turkmenistan (away), India failed to find their footing and regularly struggled to keep hold of possession in their half, with the midfield close to non-existent and the attack line, capable of only shielding the ball for a second, before being robbed of possession by a hard tackle.

Nevertheless, Constantine’s tenure might not be as vague as it seems. The only highlight of India’s World Cup qualifying campaign was the win against Guam wherein a 10-man India held on for more than 50 minutes, showcasing the best of Constantine’s leadership and arguably his era. Against Guam in Bengaluru, India played like a unit, attacked like a single unit and defended as a single unit. The chemistry was cent percent between the Indian players, and if with a man down, India can perform quite brilliantly against a team of, in Constantine’s words “American Players”, why can’t the ‘Blue Tigers’ showcase the same with 11 players against teams in the same pool as Guam? The shuffling of the first XI has to stop at some time before the damage is too much to sustain, and players who are deadweight should be dropped from the national squad rather than the ones deserving of a place like Jackichand Singh and CK Vineeth.

As for the SAFF Championship, Constantine impressed with his game plan against Maldives and Afghanistan, matching both the teams blow for blow and edging them to victory. The squad performed surprisingly well, and an 18-year old Lallianzuala made his debut. Although, the young lad from Mizoram, who also scored two sublime goals against Nepal, impressed with his footballing acumen, he seems to have withered away from Constantine’s plan as his name was not included in the final squad for Iran and Turkmenistan. As strange as it might sound, Constantine has played the ‘development’ card almost all the time, and when an admirable young talent makes his mark, what does the British coach do? Chop him off from the national squad! Lallianzuala may have been omitted from the squad after he got a chance to train at Liverpool FC’s academy, but then Constantine needs to answer whether the young lad needed a training stint or playing in the national colours.

Apart from taking home the regional championship, the SAFF Cup, Constantine has nothing to flaunt as his laurels in his second coming. Although the British coach has impressed in games against Oman, Guam and Afghanistan, with a display of attacking intent, rather than defending deep like the teams under Wim Koevermans, Constantine has still a lot to ponder over what his next step might be. An influx of young players seems to be the backdrop for days to come, which is good on the experience parameter, but the coach must promptly decide his best starting XI, work on them, construct them into a single unit to render the foundation of a well-oiled Indian team, rather than making experiments in every match.  

(Also, read about Bengaluru FC coach Ashley Westwood welcoming AIFF's decision to reduce Mohun Bagan coach Sanjoy Sen's ban)

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