SURPRISES DOMINATED India coach Stephen Constantine’s press conference ahead of Thursday’s match against Oman, a Group D clash in the second round 2018 World Cup as well as 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers.
Speaking about the probable squad for the Oman and Guam matches, the British coach said it would be East Bengal centre back Arnab Mondal who would wear the captain’s armband in those two matches. This comes as a bit of a surprise as veteran players like Subrata Paul and Sunil Chhetri who have regularly captained the Blue Tigers were very much present in the 26-man squad that underwent the pre-match practice sessions in Bengaluru, and the latter has even been selected as the vice-captain. Such a choice for the team leader’s position indicates that Constantine might give preference to youth and agility in the upcoming campaign.
25-year old Arnab Mondal has played 12 matches for India so far and scored once. He is known for keeping a cool head in pressure situations. His very first match for his present club East Bengal at the 2012 Federation Cup saw him come on as a substitute and score the equalizer. The Red and Golds went on to win the match.
But the shocking news came when Constantine announced that star defender Sandesh Jhingan was ruled out from both matches due to a shoulder injury. “He has injured his left shoulder. I think he had injured that in the ISL. It’s not good,” said the coach.
“More than likely, he will require some sort of surgery to repair a slight tear in his rotator cuff and that’s quite a big loss for us.”
This is nothing short of a heartbreak for the 21-year old Chandigarh lad. He was coming off a great season. Playing for Kerala Blasters, where he was recognized as the ‘Emerging Player’ of the maiden Indian Super League. He also did well in the I-League, joining a relegation-threatened Sporting Clube de Goa halfway into the season and helping them stay up.
Jhingan has had to deal with injuries before; two back to back knee and ankle injuries set him back during his India Under-19 days.
Speaking to reporters only a day ago, he recounted those days. It was depressing, he recalled. With help from his brother, he fought through that hard time and came out “mentally tougher.” His long struggle for national recognition was finally rewarded when he debuted for the Indian national team in the World Cup Pre-Qualifier playoffs against Nepal.
Although this is without doubt another setback for the young defender, he will take comfort in what Sachin Tendulkar told him after Kerala Blasters lost the inaugural ISL final to Atletico de Kolkata.
“He told me it took him six attempts to win the World Cup, so we had no reason to be sad,” Sandesh had told reporters earlier.
Jhingan’s absence will be a loss, but there is palpable belief in the Indian camp. Jeje Lalpekhlua stood by Constantine, saying the coach knew what he was doing. “Yes, there are big names in the Oman squad and they may be experienced. But we are there to execute our instructions,” said the Mohun Bagan striker. Veteran goalkeeper Subrata Paul, who earned a lot of applause for his performance in the Asian Cup 2011, said the competition was always going to be the tough, but they were aiming real high.
“If we do well, we have a chance of going to the 2018 World Cup. Touch-wood, let's see how far we can get. There is no prediction. I only believe in hard work.”
India are currently 141st in the FIFA rankings, and Oman are 40 places above them. One of Constantine’s primary goals is to take India into the top 100. Since World Cup qualifier matches carry extra ranking points, doing well in the upcoming 8 group matches can go a long way to achieve that dream.
As for progress to the next round; that is only guaranteed by topping the group (Only 4 of the 8 runner ups will gain promotion to the next round). And India is in the same group with Iran, ranked 41st in the World, top of Asia. But even if a World Cup qualification is seen as a far-off dream for the current Indian squad, there is another prestigious position at stake. These qualifiers are also a battle for gaining a spot in the 2019 Asian Cup. That is not an unrealistic target at all, and a win against Oman at Kanteerava tomorrow will provide the perfect launching pad for towards it.