ROBIN SINGH has left Trivandrum. Following the announcement that his injury was going to keep him out for the rest of the SAFF Championship, he took the Tuesday morning flight to Bangalore to join his club where he will try to recover in time for Bengaluru FC's first I-League match.
Asked about the striker's departure, Pritam Kotal leaned forward on the plastic chair he was sitting on in the picturesque lounge inside the Greenfield Stadium, and nodded,
"Losing a good player like Robin is obviously a loss for us. You can never predict injuries. But whoever comes in to replace him will give his best."
India play Maldives in the semi-final of the SAFF Championship on Thursday afternoon. It's going to be an afternoon kick-off, under a mercilessly scorching sun at 3:30 pm. Coach Stephen Constantine today made full use of the same sunlight to get his players used to the heat and humidity. Much of the practice was dedicated to set-pieces, and 22 year old defender Pritam Kotal was particularly busy during the whole thing.
When a journalist asked if playing alongside other Bengali players like Arnab Mondal and Subrata Paul makes things easier, the Mohun Bagan right back was quick to dismiss that notion,
"When you play with other Bengali players there's the advantage of speaking your own language. But language doesn't come in the way of having good understanding with teammates. I have a good working relationship with Sandesh Jhingan and Augustine Fernandes, for example. We discuss and analyze our games with each other after practice."
Although Pritam is mostly seen playing as a right back, against Sri Lanka he was used as a centre back. How did that change of positions come about? Prtam clarified,
"I played as a centre back back when I was in Pailan Arrows. I played as a centre, right as well as a left back for them. But this was my first time doing it for the national team. I tried to do what my coach told me."
The coach Stephen Constantine, who spoke to every player regarding their individual roles during the set-piece practice, is no doubt giving special attention to defence in the upcoming match. Pritam didn't want to divulge too much about what the coach has been telling them. He said,
"We'll play as our coach tells us to play. Coach tells us to work hard and play like it's our last match. Maldives are a good team. They attack very well so us defenders will have to be careful and maintain our shape. They'll play their game and we'll stick to ours."
There has been much talk about Maldives forward Ali Ashfaq. He has played well in the group stage and will be the main weapon for Maldives against India in the semi-final. Pritam nodded at the mention of his name,
"I saw Ali Ashfaq play on TV. He's a good player. But we play a team game, as a unit against a unit. And we'll play accordingly against Maldives."
Over the last few months, Constantine has experimented a lot with the Indian defence. The back four changes a lot from game to game, be it friendlies or World Cup Qualifiers. Even in the two games that India have played in the group stage here at SAFF Cup, we have seen two different defensive formations. Since it usually takes a defender some time to adjust to the shape of things at the back, what kind of challenges is Pritam facing in adjusting to Constantine's plans? Pritam smiled,
"To tell you the truth, I had no problem fitting into this defensive combination. Even when you change a player or two everybody has the same job to do in defence. And we play exactly according to our coach's instructions so that makes things easier."
Pritam is one of the fresher legs in the Indian team. He appeared in just 2 matches for Pune City in ISL 2015. But still, he agreed that the hectic schedule and the travelling that came with it took a toll on him like everybody else,
"ISL was pretty taxing. Even in SAFF Championship we need to play matches very frequently. But we can't do anything about the schedule so our job is to concentrate on recovery."
But thankfully, there is no dearth of young talent in the team, some of whom were spared the rigours of ISL. And foremost among them, obviously, is Chhangte Lallianzuala. About him, Pritam said,
"Zuala is young and he's playing so well, it's good to see him in action."
Days after the SAFF Championship gets over, Pritam will take to the field again for Mohun Bagan as the I-League season gets underway. And this time, there's the prospect of playing in the AFC Champions League and AFC Cup; the first ever continental competition in Pritam's club career. But while excited, he is keen to take it one step at a time,
"Let's win the SAFF first. Then we'll worry about ACL."